Pressure on Walmart to raise employee wages is ratcheting up as the giant retailer approaches the crucial holiday season. While activists are planning bigger-than-ever protests for next week's Thanksgiving and Black Friday sales marathon, which traditionally kicks off the holiday-selling season, the federal government has also condemned Walmart for some of its actions at last year's Thanksgiving Day protests.
On Monday, the National Labor Relations Board announced it is ready to issue complaints against Walmart for illegally threatening, disciplining, and even firing some employees involved in the protests.
"During two national television news broadcasts and in statements to employees at Walmart stores in California and Texas, Walmart unlawfully threatened employees with reprisal if they engaged in strikes and protests on November 22, 2012," the NLRB said in its release. "Walmart stores in California, Colorado, Florida, Illinois, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, North Carolina, Ohio, Texas and Washington unlawfully threatened, disciplined, and/or terminated employees for having engaged in legally protected strikes and protests."
The NLRB didn't find merit in all the charges. But it did find that Walmart stores in California, Florida, Missouri and Texas acted illegally in threatening, disciplining, and terminating workers for protest activities.
If the company can't settle with the parties, the NLRB will issue the complaints. The company didn't immediately respond to requests for comment. A Walmart spokesman told the Wall Street Journal that the company would defend itself because its actions were legal and justified.
The NLRB action comes at an especially sensitive time. Union-affiliated groups, which last year organized Thanksgiving Day and Black Friday protests at Walmart stores last year, promise an even bigger show of strength by disaffected workers this year during Black Friday, which takes place Nov. 29.
Their main grievance: Walmart doesn't pay many of its employees a living wage. According to the protesters, some 30,000 Walmart workers and supporters protested low wages last year. This year’s protests are expected to surpass last year’s participation and be one of the largest mobilizations of American families in history, according to an Organization United for Respect at Walmart (OUR Walmart) press release.
The group scored another public-relations coup from reports that a Walmart in Cleveland was hosting a food drive for its own employees. A Walmart employee tweeted out a picture of a sign hanging above a donation bin in an employees-only area Monday: “Please donate food here so associates in need can enjoy Thanksgiving Dinner.”
A Walmart spokesman told ABC News that the drive, which has been in operation at the store for a few years, was designed for employees whose lives had taken a bad turn – such as a spouse losing a job – rather than an indication that some workers were perpetually needy.
Nevertheless, activists were quick to respond.
"As Walmart workers, we do come together and support each other, but we shouldn't have to collect food from or for each other when our employer is making $17 billion in profits," Tiffany Beroid, an OUR Walmart member and Walmart associate in Laurel, Md., said in an e-mailed statement. "Walmart should publicly commit to pay us $25,000 a year and end its illegal retaliation against those of us speaking out. Today's revelation confirms what far too many Walmart workers already know: wages are too low to support a family and Walmart will do anything to avoid addressing the real issues. We don't want handouts, we want an employer that pays us enough to cover Thanksgiving dinner for our families.”
Such reports and protests are likely to turn up the political heat on Walmart. The retailer turned $15.7 billion in profit last year last year, yet some workers rely on social programs to survive. In May, a report by the Democratic staff of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce calculated that a single Walmart Supercenter in Wisconsin might cost taxpayers $904,542 a year in public-assistance payments to at least some of the store's 300 employees – about $5,815 per worker.
Walmart isn’t the only large US corporation under attack for paying its employees so little that some of them have to rely on public assistance. Earlier this month, a recording of a McDonald’s resource hotline operator advising a caller to sign up for food stamps or visit a food pantry went public.