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Working In These Times

Monday, Nov 18, 2013, 2:40 pm

As ‘Black Friday’ Looms, Wal-Mart Under the Gun for Alleged Retaliation

BY Jeff Bishku-Aykul

OUR Wal-Mart demonstrators demanding better wages and full-time hours during the 2012 Black Friday protest.   (Jobs With Justice/Flickr/Creative Commons)

"We’ve got a lot of associates to make good solid, middle-class income,” said Wal-Mart Corporate CEO and President Bill Simon in a September 11 presentation at the Goldman Sachs Annual Global Retail Conference. Simon buttressed his argument with a slide from his presentation showing that in 2012, 475,000 associates earned more than $25,000.

But critics were quick to point out the flip side of Simon’s rosy proclamation: If just under half a million of the mega-retailer’s 1.4 million total associates were earning his quoted sum, then a majority were making less. That brings them near or below the federal poverty line for a family of four of $23,550.

Wal-Mart’s low wages have been a flashpoint of controversy for years. Despite securing $15.7 billion in profits in 2012, more than half of all Wal-Mart employees receive federal subsidies. Employees have also been expected to provide for their own—a recent Thanksgiving food-drive initiated by a Wal-Mart in Cleveland is soliciting its own employees to donate food to other “associates in need.”

Now, for the second year in a row, Wal-Mart associates and supporters organized by United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) are planning  protests at Wal-Marts around the country on the day after Thanksgiving, “Black Friday,” one of the busiest shopping days of the year.

Last year, one thousand Black Friday demonstrations took place in 46 states, according to organizers, and three Wal-Mart employees who participated were arrested. The Black Friday actions are being staged by two UFCW-backed organizations, Organization United for Respect at Walmart (OUR Walmart)—a non-union group of Wal-Mart associates, who have long been banned from formal unionizing by management—and Making Change at Walmart, a broad coalition of unions, clergy, community organizations and store associates who want to change the company’s practices.

While Our Walmart's Declaration of Respect calls for improvements such as $13-an-hour pay, a minimum of $25,000 a year for all employees, expanded healthcare benefits, and a commitment by Wal-Mart to end employee dependence on social services, the Black Friday protests have centered on protecting workers who participate in actions from being punished by management. OUR Walmart’s 2013 Black Friday Pledge is almost identical to last year’s. It calls on associates to refuse to work the day after Thanksgiving “in protest of Wal-Mart’s continuous acts of retaliation against those of us who speak out for better pay, affordable healthcare, improved working conditions, fair schedules, more hours, and most of all, respect.”

A recent flurry of high-profile Wal-Mart employee strikes and demonstrations—which include actions in Chicago and Seattle—have been followed by what Our Walmart says are illegal retaliatory firings. A June action by OUR Walmart led to Wal-Mart dismissing 20 employees and disciplining 50, according to The Nation.

Today, in what would be a major coup for OUR Walmart, the organization said in a press release that the National Labor Relations Board will be prosecuting Wal-Mart for these alleged acts of retaliation. (Update: The NLRB has confirmed this.)

California employee Barbara Collins was one of the employees fired this summer after participating in a demonstration. While on strike in June, Collins was one of 100 associates who traveled by bus on OUR Walmart’s “Ride for Respect” to demonstrate at the company’s annual shareholder’s meeting in Arkansas. Collins then participated in a sit-in at the Sunnyvale, Calif. office of Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer—a Wal-Mart board member.

“Walmart claims it fired me, and fired or disciplined my co-workers, for ‘no call, no show’ when we were on a legally protected strike in June,” wrote Collins in an article for Salon in late August. “While the move wasn’t surprising, I believe it was against the law.”

On July 22, Making Change at Walmart posted an online petition directed at the company’s board of directors calling for the reinstatement of the fired workers. The company’s failure to meet Making Change at Walmart’s Labor Day deadline to agree to “pay a real wage” and rehire the fired workers then paved the way for nationwide protests on Sept. 5 in 15 cities, including New York, Chicago, Dallas and Los Angeles.

Since then, dozens of employees at a Miami-area Wal-Mart went on strike on Oct. 18 and in Los Angeles last Wednesday organizers said 20 employees from six stores picketed in front of a Paramount neighborhood Wal-Mart for higher wages. More than 200 people protested outside a Chinatown store location the next evening, in what was billed by organizers as the largest act of civil disobedience against Wal-Mart ever.

Asked for comment, Wal-Mart spokesperson Brooke Buchanan told Working In These Times that only two current associates were involved in the Chinatown protest. But Elizabeth Brennan, a spokesperson for the California worker advocacy group Warehouse Workers United told Al Jazeera that around 100 Wal-Mart employees were involved. More than 50 were arrested at the demonstration.

“Striking is not something that I take lightly,” said part-time Paramount Wal-Mart employee Anthony Goytia during OUR Walmart’s November 7 press call. “In fact, I’m striking even though I know Wal-Mart will probably try and retaliate against me or some of my fellow coworkers.”

The father of two says he earns less than 25,000 annually and that if he’s fortunate he’ll make $12,000 this year. He adds that his family occasionally relies on food stamps and Medi-Cal—California’s Medicaid program -- and that he sells his blood plasma and participates in clinical trials.

“I need to be able to take care of my family. And that’s why yesterday and today I’m risking everything -- my livelihood, my ability to provide for my family, my ability to pay my rent on time, put food on the table—everything, by striking against a company that aggressively and illegally disciplines and fires who speak out for better jobs.”

Wal-Mart spokesperson Brooke Buchanan would not comment on the planned protests, except to say, “It’s going to be business as usual at our stores.”

Buchanan adds that Wal-Mart maintains a “strict anti-retaliation policy.” She says the company’s decision to fire the 20 employees that were the focus of Making Change at Wal-Mart’s summer petition was based on “other violations of our policies including the attendance policy.”

Wal-Mart may need all the sales it can get this Black Friday, as third-quarter results released last week beat analysts’ predications by a hair but failed to impress investors. Wal-Mart Stores CEO and President Mike Duke pointed at “customer uncertainty about the economy, government [and] job stability.”

"Black Friday 2013 promises to be the biggest and best Wal-Mart Black Friday yet,” the company boasts on its website. What remains to be seen is whether Wal-Mart employees’ low wages or the store's low prices will define the day.

Jeffrey Bishku-Aykul is a Fall 2013 intern.

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