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Black Friday walkout: why Wal-Mart is focus of labor's struggle

Wal-Mart's low-cost recipe for success is under attack from the threatened Black Friday walkout as workers protest low wages and benefit cuts. The retailer is fighting back, accusing organized labor of making trouble.

By Staff writer / November 21, 2012

A worker pulled a line of shopping carts toward a Wal-Mart store in North Kingstown, R.I., Nov. 13. Wal-Mart employees have threatened a Black Friday walkout to protest low wages and benefits cuts.

Steven Senne/AP

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Los Angeles

As the hottest shopping day of the retail calendar looms, the world’s largest retailer, Wal-Mart, is embroiled in a battle to defend its image, even its formula for success. A growing number of employees, protesting low wages and benefit cuts, is vowing to walk out on Black Friday.

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Wal-Mart charges that outside union agitators with the United Food and Commercial workers union (UFCWU) are making trouble. Both sides have filed grievances with the National labor Relations board (NLRB).

Coming alongside the failure of talks between labor and management at yet another iconic American company, Hostess Brands Inc., Wal-Mart’s travails have put a sharp focus on working conditions following the worst post-Depression recession in the nation’s history, say both labor and business experts.

“Wal-Mart has become the poster child for all the issues surrounding labor right now,” says Scott Testa, a Philadelphia-based business consultant and blogger who has studied Wal-Mart’s business practices extensively. The company has implemented aggressive anti-union measures, he notes, closing a store in Canada rather than negotiate.

The issues at stake are not peripheral, says Mr. Testa, adding that they go to the very soul of Wal-Mart’s business model. The Arkansas-based company, founded a half-century ago by Sam Walton, lives and dies by its ability to cut costs, he says.

Testa notes that Wal-Mart has evolved over the years by dwelling on the fringes of urban areas.

“Many of the municipalities where Wal-Mart has thrived were happy to give the company big open spaces of under-used land, where there was no development,” he says, adding that employees in hard-hit regions have been grateful for the jobs.

But now that the company is expanding into major urban areas such as Los Angeles, Chicago, and Boston, “they are experiencing a kind of worker pushback that they have largely been able to avoid,” adds Testa.

Wal-Mart is not unionized. But for the first time in the company’s 50-year history, dozens of workers in southern California stores went out on strike on Oct. 4. They were not calling for unions, but for better working conditions and the elimination of retaliatory practices by management. In the past six weeks, the work stoppages have spread around the country.

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