Around 7:30 a.m. on November 29, the day of the annual “Black Friday” shopping frenzy, demonstrators massed in front of the large Wal-Mart Supercenter on Chicago’s North Avenue, where steel crowd-control fences stood as remnants of one of the busiest shopping nights of the year. This year, however, they served a second purpose: Security guards were advised over their radios to “close the gates” and “don’t let them in” as protesters arrived by bus in the parking lot.
Several hours later, at a protest in front of the smaller Wal-Mart Neighborhood Market in Chicago’s Lakeview neighborhood, two Wal-Mart employees and eight other demonstrators were arrested for blocking the street.
As he stood in the middle of Broadway preparing for arrest, Myron Byrd, an employee at the Lakeview Wal-Mart, told Working In These Times, “I want the Walton family [which owns Wal-Mart] to sit down with us and talk. We want respect. I’m willing to get arrested today to fight for respect.” After giving a three-minute warning, Chicago police officers began zip-tying blockaders’ wrists and walking them to waiting police vehicles.
The actions were just two of 11 Wal-Mart protests in Illinois, according to Organization United for Respect at Walmart (OUR Walmart), the non-union worker group that led the protests. Some 1,500 demonstrations nationwide were planned, and at least 111 people were arrested in nine cities during civil disobedience actions like the one in Lakeview. Wal-Mart claims that only 20 employees engaged in Friday’s protests, but Evan Yeats, a spokesperson for the United Food and Commercial Workers union, which backs OUR Walmart, told Working In These Times, “There’s no way that’s accurate. … I’m not willing to make up a number, but that sounds made up. There were over a dozen [Wal-Mart workers involved] in Chicago alone.”
Retaliation rears its head
This is the second year running that Wal-Mart has faced Black Friday demonstrations across the country as workers and their supporters demand better wages and working conditions. This year, in addition to calling for a living wage of $25,000 a year for full-time employees and the availability of full-time work for those who want it, OUR Walmart pushed for an end to retaliation against organizing workers and the reinstatement of illegally fired workers. Last week, the National Labor Relations Board announced that it had found evidence that Wal-Mart illegally retaliated against employees in 12 states who went on strike, protested or attempted to unionize.
Erica Jones, senior manager of communications at Wal-Mart, told Working In These Times via email, “Our company does not retaliate. In fact, no associate has been retaliated against for raising concerns — nor will they be.”
Larry Born, who works the night shift with his wife at a Wal-Mart in Crestwood, Ill., says he has never been disciplined for organizing with OUR Walmart, but that workers at his Chicago-area store face “intimidation” from management if they complain about working conditions. Managers, in his experience, “look for the weak links — if they feel that you’re weak, they’ll pick on you.”
What low wages mean on Thanksgiving
One bystander to Friday’s protest in Lakeview, Dave Judelson, said that while the demonstration took him by surprise as he was shopping at a nearby store, he wasn’t surprised workers were protesting. He said he had seen the circulating photo of food-drive bins for needy employees at Wal-Mart in a Canton, Ohio, and he noted that Wal-Mart also relies on taxpayers to support their low-wage workers. (Indeed, a government study from this year showed that at a single Wal-Mart supercenter, employees’ reliance on social services could cost taxpayers over $1 million a year.)
Asked about the workers’ demand for a living wage, Wal-Mart’s Erica Jones said, “Wal-Mart provides wages on the higher end of the retail average with full-time and part-time associates making, on average, close to $12 an hour.” She added that employees who work on Thanksgiving receive holiday pay “equal to an additional day’s work,” as well as a 25 percent discount on a “basket of goods.”
It’s true that Wal-Mart pays employees extra on Thanksgiving, but unlike most of its big-box competitors, such as Kmart, Target, and Sears, the company does not pay time and a half for holidays. Instead, hourly workers receive their normal wages plus a bonus equal to their average daily earnings for the last two weeks. According to Brandon Ballenger of MoneyTalks News, given that Wal-Mart cuts workers’ hours during the holiday season — sometimes in half — by hiring an estimated 55,000 seasonal workers, an employee’s holiday pay can be less than time and a half.
And Born says that even that Thanksgiving bonus isn’t the gift that it sounds like, because workers are forced to choose between the free time and the extra pay. “They can’t afford to take the day off. … You wind up not only losing the day’s pay, but you wind up losing your holiday pay, which is like losing two days’ pay.” In other words, if employees made a living wage, they wouldn’t have to choose between providing a Thanksgiving dinner for their family and enjoying it with them.
Not idle bystanders
Many of the 100 or so supporters who turned out for the Chicago Black Friday protests were themselves service workers allied with the SEIU-backed Fight for 15 movement, which has rallied retail and fast-food workers since early 2012 to push for a higher minimum wage and the right to unionize without interference.
Trish Kahle, a Chicago Whole Foods employee active in Fight for 15 who attended both Chicago Black Friday protests, said she came because of a “basic link” between workers at Whole Foods and Wal-Mart: “Wages aren’t high enough, and we’re not making enough to support ourselves and our families.”