Walmart workers prepare for 'huge' Black Friday protests

Nearly two dozen people were arrested Thursday at a protest outside a Walmart in California. It's been several years since Walmart employees started trying to form a union. Is unionization possible in today's economic climate?

Rick Wilking/Reuters
Gibu Thomas, senior vice president for mobile and digital Walmart Global eCommerce, answers a question at a Walmart media presentation in Rogers, Ark., June 5, 2014. Walmart Stores Inc. reported a 2.9 percent increase in third-quarter revenue, helped by strong sales at its small format 'Neighborhood Market' stores.

Black Friday is only a few weeks away, and big retail stores are gearing up for the stampede of shoppers that fuel one of their most profitable quarters of the year. Meanwhile, employees of America's largest retailer are already gearing up to strike.

Members of OUR Walmart, a union-backed group of Walmart employees, held the first in-store sit-down strike in Walmart history Thursday at a store in Los Angeles. That same day, 23 people were arrested at a protest outside another Walmart in the Los Angeles area. OUR Walmart is calling for $15-an-hour wages and more full-time positions with regular hours.

When asked about Thursday's protests, Walmart spokeswoman Brooke Buchanan said the company does not retaliate against workers who strike or protest.

Whether Walmart workers will be able to win significant victories from these kinds of actions remains to be seen. Black Friday protests in 2012 and 2013 yielded some results, according to OUR Walmart, including a pregnancy policy for pregnant workers and a new scheduling policy instituted this spring that allows workers to know when additional shifts are available and sign up for them online.

Walmart employees have made several attempts to unionize in the past few years, but the retail giant – which employs 1.4 million people and pulls in $16 billion in annual profits – has taken a hard stance against unionization. In January, the Internet activist group Anonymous leaked a Walmart PowerPoint presentation instructing managers on how to discourage workers from organizing and joining union-backed groups.

In June, Canada’s Supreme Court found that Walmart had broken provincial law by closing a store in 2005 shortly after newly unionized employees sought the help of the local bargaining unit during contract negotiations.

In the United States, Walmart isn’t the only entity that has soured on unionization. In 2011, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R) signed a law that effectively prevents public employees from unionizing. Nationally, 11.3 percent of the workforce belongs to a union, the lowest share since the Great Depression.

While OUR Walmart was founded by the United Food and Commercial Workers union, the group has not made overt calls for unionization of Walmart employees, opting to appeal to Walmart management via demonstrations and online petitions.

“Our protests are being felt in every store,” said Barbara Gertz, an Our Walmart member and Walmart employee from Colorado, in a conference call with reporters Friday morning. “[Workers] are seeing them on the news. We’re showing up in stores we’ve never been in and had workers saying, ‘We were wondering when you’d be here.’ ”

OUR Walmart’s online petition calls for wages of $15 an hour and full-time work. Workers from more than 2,100 Walmart stores have signed the petition so far.

The rising tide of protests is coming at a difficult time for Walmart. The company has been criticized for years for its treatment of workers and its forceful responses to worker organizing at stores around the country.

In June, Bill Simon, then US president and CEO of Walmart, addressed some of workers' concerns at a shareholders meeting.

“We've spent a lot of time listening to you about what you want in terms of schedule choice, job growth, and access to opportunity,” Mr. Simon said. “We're working to create more flexible schedules to support you and the needs of all our associates now and in the future.”

Recent protests against Walmart have also coincided with other strike actions and issues related to economic inequality in the US.

Federal contract workers in Washington, D.C., including some in the US Capitol, went on a one-day strike Thursday demanding higher wages, and a recent report found that wealth inequality in America has reached levels not seen since 1929.

“I think that we’re at a tipping point about growing inequality [in America],” says Dana Frank, a labor history professor at the University of California, Santa Cruz.

 This article includes material from Reuters.

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