Black Friday: Walmart protests liken back to days before unions (+video)

Walmart protests on Black Friday by some employees are an attempt to shame the company into public action – even though the workers are not organized into a labor union. Extent of Walmart protests still unclear.

By , Staff writer

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    Protesters sit outside the Wal-Mart store in Paramount, Calif., on Black Friday.
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In staging nationwide protests at Wal-Mart stores on Black Friday, employees and labor unions are turning back the clock – trying to influence America’s largest retailer in ways that were the norm before the union movement started in the 1930s.

The disgruntled employees group organizing Friday’s walkouts, called Organization United for Respect at Walmart (OUR Walmart), complains that Wal-Mart pays low wages and sets unfair labor conditions. But since Wal-Mart employees are not organized into a union, they can’t strike to air their grievances.

Instead, the Black Friday protests are only the latest – and most ambitious – of a series of attempts by OUR Walmart and others to publicly shame the company into listening to grievances.

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“What is making today so interesting, and what this Walmart group has found, is there may be a way to essentially change Walmart’s behavior legally without having to actually organize 51 percent of the workers,” says Robert Bruno, director of the Labor Education Program at the University of Illinois in Chicago. “While I’m sure that [union organizing] is still the objective, in the meantime they can create a lot of rights using less workers and without having to represent them.”

Wal-Mart officials say disgruntled workers make up far less than the 51 percent of the workforce needed to organize a union according to federal law. Moreover, they say that the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union, which is supporting OUR Walmart, is illegally interfering in the company’s business. The company filed a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board last Friday.

It is unclear how many protests are taking place, though local media reports show they are spread nationwide. They have been relatively peaceful, according to reports. OUR Walmart says that protests are being held at 1,000 stores in the US, but Wal-Mart calls that number “grossly exaggerated,” according to a statement by spokesman David Tovar.

It says that many of the people in the protests are not employees at all. The company estimates that “less than 50 associates participated in the protest nationwide … roughly the same number of associates missed their scheduled shifts as last year,” said Bill Simon, Wal-Mart’s US president and chief executive officer, in a statement.

In Milwaukee, about 60 protesters arrived in buses at two separate Wal-Mart locations, where they marched around each building, holding signs and chanting. Several hundred protesters organized outside a Wal-Mart store in Capitol Plaza in Landover Hills, Md., outside Washington, according to a local CBS station. In Orlando, Fla., US Rep.-elect Alan Grayson (D) joined protesters.

Professor Bruno says it is inevitable that the labor movement would target Wal-Mart, because the firm has emerged to play such an important role in the new economy.

“Wal-Mart is GM and US Steel amplified. They are a key employer in a large industry that, given the changes in our economy, has become more important than they might have been several years ago,” he says. The Black Friday protests are a “product of a series of experimental efforts over years to organize Wal-Mart and to recognize and improve the working conditions there.”

Since September, OUR Walmart has staged protests at company stores, hoping to force the company to pay an hourly minimum wage of $13, make full-time jobs a priority for existing employees, provide affordable health care, and more. The group also says Wal-Mart has unfairly retaliated against certain employees for various reasons, from needing to change work schedules to speaking out against the company.

Wal-Mart workers currently must work an average of 30 hours per week to receive benefits, and the average full-time hourly wage is $12.57, according to the company website.

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