Walmart Strike: Why the Black Friday Protests Matter to the Future of US Jobs

by Lilly O'Donnell

Walmart is notorious for treating its workers terribly, but this year employees are fighting back by hitting the retailer where it hurts: on Black Friday, the biggest shopping day of the year. Walkouts and protests at locations around the country have already started, and a strike is scheduled for Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving and the start of the Christmas shopping season.

Walmart employees have reported ( that if they complain about their schedules, wages, or benefits, the company either docks their hours or fires them. But during the holiday shopping rush, Walmart will need all hands on deck, giving the striking employees the most leverage they’re going to get. Not to mention that, as if striking employees were ever good for business, a picket line is sure to put a damper on the holiday cheer that spurs big spending this time of year.

With 1.4 million U.S. workers, Walmart is the country’s largest private employer, and one of the top 20 largest companies in the world. Clearly a force to be reckoned with, Walmart has managed to quash previous attempts at organization among employees. This strike, backed by Making Change at Walmart (MCW -, a coalition of Walmart employees, union leaders, and other supporters, will be the first in the company’s history.

“As the largest private employer in the United States and the world, Walmart is setting the standard for jobs,” reads MCW’s website. “That standard is so low that hundreds of thousands of its employees are living in poverty — even many that work full time.”

And they’re exactly right, this strike is about more than the wages and healthcare premiums of Walmart’s employees – though those are valid and urgent issues – it’s about what we mean when we talk about the need for jobs in this country. As we all know from the recent presidential race and debates, employment in this country is a major issue, and Americans aren’t likely to be confident in the economic recovery until the unemployment rate is back below 7%.

But when we say we want Americans put back to work, do we mean we want them working for wages so low that they still need public assistance to feed their children? Do we mean we want them working for a company that will fire them if they try to organize or express dissatisfaction?

I know that’s not what I mean when I hope for the American economy to recover.

Certainly, Walmart is as big and successful as it is because they know how to save money, and cheap labor is necessary for such a large operation to function. But there has to be a balance. Walmart, as a leader of American industry, has a responsibility to find a way to define what the future of the American labor force will look like.

Certainly, such a large company could find the money to pay its employees a living wage, to provide adequate healthcare at a premium that the living wage can accommodate. Imagine how much of a difference it could make for the economy at large if those 1.4 million Walmart employees could actually afford to spend money spurring the economy, instead of pinching every single penny and still just barely scraping by.

© 2012 PolicyMic

Lilly O'Donnell is a freelance writer, currently working on her first book.

Occupy Walmart: Workers Plan Black Friday Protests

by Allison Kilkenny

Walmart workers are planning to mark Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving and one of the biggest shopping days of the year, with pickets outside of stores and warehouses across the country.

Former and current employees of the giant corporation describe systemic abuse and harassment by management at Walmart stores and warehouses. When asked about their demands, many workers talk about the desire for management to respect and listen to the workers. Our Walmart (, a protest group seeking justice and accountability from Walmart, also wants to see the minimum wage raised to $13/hour and for full-time jobs to be made available to Associates who want them. Other demands include a dependable, predictable work schedule, affordable healthcare, no discrimination, and wages that ensure no Associate has to rely on government assistance to survive.

Walmart is one of the biggest recipients of government subsidies (, receiving tax breaks, free land, cash grants and other forms of public assistance, in addition to paying some of its workers so little that they too turn to the federal government for programs like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).

However, even Walmart employees who make better wages complain about abuse on the job. An employee at a Walmart distribution center in Gas City, Indiana initially decided to work at the big box chain because his job pays almost $20 an hour, and he couldn't find another job that paid that well in his area. The worker, who asked to remain anonymous because he's afraid of being fired for going public with his complaints, says that Walmart has the attitude that because they pay workers well the employees are "required to be their slaves."

His job is to load heavy boxes, sometimes up to seventy pounds, onto pallets stacked six feet tall in a freezer that has a temperature of -20 degrees. He is also given very short time limits for each pallet to be completed, so he normally ends up running down aisles with heavy boxes to make his rate.

One day, he cut a fairly large gash in his leg by scraping one of the wooden pallets and his leg started bleeding. When he asked his manager for a bandage, he was told that if his manager gave him one, they'd have to write him up for not being careful enough on the job. Instead, he worked all day with an open wound because he was afraid that one more write up could get him fired.

This is part of a system of harassment and intimidation. The worker goes on to explain that Walmart is notorious for telling employees they will be fired upon their first utterance of the word "union," and they are encouraged to not report on-the-job injuries. If the equipment breaks while they're using it, regardless of the cause, the employees will be written up. There are four categories of write ups, and once they get written up four times, they are automatically fired with no questions asked.

Dan Hindman ( has worked at a Walmart near Los Angeles for four years. The former employee of the month, who makes $9.80 an hour, told CBS News that even though he is scheduled to work on Black Friday, he doesn't plan to show up.

"Walmart needs to learn that it's not fair how they treat us," Hindman says.

"We don't want to walk out on Black Friday. We don't want to do this. It's just something we have to do, because it's the right thing to do," Hindman says.

He says his schedule was cut to 15 hours per week when he joined a group of Walmart employees who favor unionizing. He lost custody of his four-year-old son when he could no longer support him.

"So I lost my son and I'm kind of regretting working for Walmart, but I have to provide, you know?" says an emotional Hindman. "It's the biggest retailer in the world, and you can't help me provide for my son? It kills me, dude. It really tears me apart, big time."

In order to show solidarity with Walmart workers, the Occupy movement has organized a series of grassroots events across the country. A coalition, including Occupy Wall Street, 99 Pickets, ALIGN, Rev. Billy and the Church of Stop Shopping, Retail Action Project, and other allies will occupy a Walmart store in North Jersey ( in solidarity with the workers.

But the event is in no way limited to the New York-New Jersey region, and other Occupy chapters are also planning actions. Nick Espinosa from Occupy Minnesota says protesters in Minneapolis are working with Centro de Trabajadores Unidos en Lucha (CTLU), in addition to other community organizations and labor groups, to support local Walmart workers who are going out on strike.

"Occupy is serving as a hub to connect people to where workers are standing up and speaking out in ways that they can support them," says Espinosa.

"Occupy serves as a hub for people from all walks of life to start a dialogue, and as we started a conversation with people, we found many people are obviously having similar problems at work, from layoffs to low wages, and in Walmart's case, you don't have to go far to make the connection between Walmart and Wall Street. They're the world's largest employer and they're the quintessential one percent corporation," Espinosa continues, citing Walmart's penchant for subcontracting as a way to "absolve themselves for the abuses of their workers that goes on all along the supply chain, from the stores to their factories where the products are being packed. It goes from here to China."

Upon visiting a Walmart store in Mexico, Espinosa says he saw youth who were bagging groceries there for no wages - only tips.

"They're outsourcing abuse of workers all over the world and doing everything they can to create a smokescreen between their brand and the actual abuses that are allowing them to skim profits from working people to pad the CEO's profits."

While Espinosa doesn't claim Occupy inspired the recent string of Walmart strikes and walkouts, he does credit the movement for raising awareness about the issues of class and labor abuses.

"Occupy was a shot across the bow to the one percent and corporate rule. When it comes to workers' rights, I think it's been a wakeup call to workers and some of the larger unions that if we don't start fighting, we really have no hope for a better future. Right now, even with President Obama post-election, we're looking at nothing but cuts and austerity, so I think people are taking a cue from Occupy and from movements all over the world. People are seeing what's happening in Spain, in Greece, right now with the general strikes and seeing that as the real way forward to protecting workers' rights and creating real opportunities that don't involve balancing the budgets on the backs of working families and the most vulnerable in our society."

In response, Walmart has filed a National Labor Relations Board charge ( alleging that the pickets are illegal and asking for a judge to shut them down, while simultaneously claiming the strike involves only a "handful of associates, at a handful of stores scattered across the country that are participating in these…made for-TV events."

Janna Pea, a spokeswoman for one of the workers' groups, says she expect some 1,000 of the roughly 4,000 chain stores to be hit with walkouts.

I'll be live-tweeting from some of the Black Friday protests. Follow me at @allisonkilkenny.

© 2012 The Nation

Allison Kilkenny is the co-host of the progressive political podcast Citizen Radio ( and independent journalist who blogs at Her work has appeared in The American Prospect, the L.A. Times, In These Times, Common Dreams, Truthout and the award-winning grassroots NYC newspaper The Indypendent.

Walmart and Black Friday protests

Protests against Walmart are about a ruthless capitalist system that exploits workers as MNCs post record profits.
by Rose Aguilar

They've finally had enough. After years of financial and emotional exploitation, Walmart workers, for the first time in the corporation's 50-year history, are striking on Black Friday, the busiest shopping day of the year in the United States. Workers will make history tomorrow by taking part in over 1,000 protests and civil disobedience actions across the country, from Richmond, California, to Miami, Florida.

Walmart's non-union workers are calling for better conditions, living wages, the possibility of working full-time, an end to retaliation for speaking out, and basic dignity. We should expect nothing less from a corporation that posted $3.64bn in profits for the third quarter alone and has already registered $444bn in sales this year.

Walmart heir Robson Walton, whose net worth is $26bn, took in more than $420m in dividends last year, while the average employee makes $8.81 an hour or $15,500 a year. The Walton family has more wealth than the bottom 42 per cent of American families combined. In 2010, CEO Michael Duke's annual salary of $35m gives him more in an hour than a full-time employee makes in an entire year.

Workers like 35-year-old Raymond Bravo are putting their jobs on the line by speaking out and striking, but they are tired of the exploitation. While most of us are sleeping, Bravo, an overnight maintenance associate, is waxing the floors, cleaning the registers and making sure the store is ready for the next day's shoppers.

He's worked at the Walmart in Richmond, California, for 18 months, works 32 hours a week and makes $9.85 an hour. He says he's asked for 40 hours a week, but his manager refuses to hire him full-time.

Depending on government assistance

A third of Walmart's employees work less than 28 hours per week and have no benefits. "A lot of people are afraid to speak out," he says. "When I try to hold my assistant manager accountable, they cut my hours."

Bravo says the support workers are receiving across the country is empowering and gives them the strength they need to keep going. "It's deep," he says.

"It makes us want to do even more. It makes you want to put in more effort. It's hard to explain. It feels hella good. It's crazy on the news and it's like, damn, I'm part of this. I know they're going to teach this in schools in the future."

The striking workers are asking citizens to boycott the world's largest corporation on Black Thursday and Friday. Yes, several Walmart stores will open tonight at 8pm, forcing workers to leave their families.

And if you do go shopping, Bravo asks you to "please walk up to the associates and tell them you appreciate them because we don't get appreciation from management," he says.

"When I told my manager that there are more associates than management, he got really mad. We're finally coming together. It's on."

It's been incredible to watch this movement explode over the past few months. It all started on June 4 when eight striking Mexican guest workers in Breaux Bridge, Louisiana, accused CJ's Seafood, which sells the majority of its crawfish to Walmart, of threatening them with violence, forcing them to peel and boil crawfish for up to 24 hours straight without overtime pay and locking them in the plant.

That same day, the workers, who were hired under the H-2B visa programme, which allows companies to hire foreign workers for temporary jobs, filed complaints with the Department of Labor and the Equal Employment Commission.

In July, Southern California warehouse workers who move goods for Walmart, filed a complaint with the state's Division of Occupational Safety and Health detailing more than a dozen violations, including no access to clean water, wage abuses, broken equipment and unreasonable and unsafe moving quotas.

Workers say they are denied access to medical care, are told they will be laid off if they can't work while injured, and are often blocked inside the trailers they are loading for up to 30 minutes with no exit.

Because their wages are so low, 25 per cent of all Walmart warehouse workers depend on government assistance to provide for their families and 37 per cent work more than one job, according to Warehouse Workers for Justice.

On September 28, Southern California warehouse workers returned to work after a 15-day strike that included a six-day, 50-mile pilgrimage for safe jobs. "We no longer feel like we are working in the shadows," said Carlos Martinez, a warehouse worker who went on strike and participated in the 50-mile WalMarch from the warehouses in the Inland Empire to Downtown Los Angeles.

"We've never had this much attention on our working conditions and I have never felt this much support. I feel ecstatic going back to work and proud that we have all stood together as a team."

Horrific business practices

In October, workers walked off the job in more than 12 cities and held protests at more than 200 stores across the country, with the support of national and local leaders of OUR Walmart. At that point, the national media could no longer ignore the workers' calls for respect and dignity.

"No matter how hard we work, my husband and I can't catch up on our bills," said Charlene Fletcher, an OUR Walmart leader from Duarte, California. Charlene has worked at Walmart for 2-1/2 years and her husband Greg has been there for six years. They have two children, ages two and five.

"We just found out that we are both scheduled to work on Thanksgiving Day instead of being home with our kids. It's heartbreaking to miss the holiday with them, and it's just one more way that Walmart is showing its disregard for our families. But when our co-workers speak out about problems like these, Walmart turns their schedules upside down, cuts their hours and even fires people. We're going on strike for an end to Walmart's attempts to silence its workers."

In addition to cutting hours and firing workers who speak out, Walmart tried to prevent the strike by suing the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union, the strike's main supporter. This desperate attempt to silence workers proves that the strikes are working.

These actions are about a lot more than Walmart's horrific business practices, which have been written about and documented for years. These strikes are about a ruthless capitalist system that exploits workers as multinationals post record profits and CEOs and high- level executives make millions, or in the case of the Walmart heirs, billions.

What the ruling class doesn't seem to understand is that they can only push people so far before they break and say enough is enough. Corporations like Walmart have the cash, resources and lawyers to file endless lawsuits, but the workers have their dignity and no amount of money or profit can take that away.

Watch this video of Walmart workers who can't afford enough to eat; can't afford housing; borrow money from each other to make ends meet; are bullied by management for speaking out; are tired of the discrimination; and were fired for speaking out.

Find a Black Friday action in your area (, support these workers and demand an end to the exploitation and ongoing injustice. As the workers say, "Together, we are stronger than we are alone."

© 2012 Al-Jazeera

Rose Aguilar is the host of Your Call, a daily call-in radio show on KALW in San Francisco.

'Black Friday' Strikes Mark Start of Walmart Workers Fight

Demand for living wage and human dignity will not be thwarted
by Common Dreams staff

In what critics see as an insatiable and rapacious strategy to lure deal-hungry consumers, many of the nation's largest big box retailers opened their doors Thursday night in efforts to extend the available hours for the national shopping glut known as "Black Friday".

For some, however, the cultish behavior that has come to surround the start of the holiday shopping season has become an opportunity to voice opposition to the way retail behemoths conduct their business and treat their workers. Walmart workers, in particular, are using this day to highlight their ongoing and unprecedented campaign against the world's largest retailer, asking for better wages, improved working conditions, and demanding owners to respect their call for human dignity.

OUR Walmart ( -- the group of current and former employees spearheading the movement -- is leading strikes and demonstrations at nearly 1,000 stores in states across the country on Friday and Saturday.

Despite efforts by Walmart to downplay the turnout of specific protests, organizers say they've received enormous support from around the country and view their efforts this week to take on the powerful corporation as a beginning, not an end, to their struggle.

The Los Angeles Times reports:

Richard Reynoso, 19, of Baldwin Park, walked out of his shift a half-hour early to join the protests. He picked up a megaphone and led supporters from the United Food and Commercial Workers union in a series of chants.

"Who's got the power?" Reynoso shouted.

"We got the power," the crowd responded.

"What kind of power?"

"People power!"

In the year he's been working at Wal-Mart, managers have increased their demands and done little to improve working conditions, Reynoso said. Since joining OUR Wal-Mart, he said he's worked fewer hours.

"They don't treat us with the respect we deserve," Reynoso said. "They think we're robots."

George Woodley, a 63-year-old Wal-Mart cashier, was also outside. He is a few years away from retirement, and wants to fight for current and future employees, he said.

"I know times are tough and people need jobs," Woodley said. "But the question is, what kind of jobs are we getting?"

And added this video of a 19 year old Walmart employee talking about why he joined the strike:

As the Toronto Sun reports:

In Chicago, four busloads of protesters, including some Walmart workers, showed up at a store on the city’s South Side for a 7 a.m. protest. The crowd chanted “Walmart, Walmart you’re no good, treat your workers like you should!” though their activities did not appear to deter shoppers.

The Guardian adds:

The actions began Thursday, as workers protested the retail giant's decision to open on Thanksgiving, which is traditionally a national holiday. Industrial action continued Friday, with organizers claiming 1,000 protests in 46 states.

Walmart workers in Miami, Dallas, Wisconsin, California's Bay Area, Chicago and Washington DC took part in the walk out, protesting wages and work conditions. The demonstrations were co-ordinated by OUR Walmart, a workers' group that last month led the first strikes that the retail giant had experienced. [...]

"Walmart has spent the last 50 years pushing its way on workers and communities," said Mary Pat Tifft, an OUR Walmart member and 24-year associate who led a protest on Thursday evening in Kenosha, Wisconsin. "In just one year, leaders of OUR Walmart and Warehouse Workers United have begun to prove that change is coming to the world's largest employer."

"Our voices are being heard," said Colby Harris, an OUR Walmart member and three-year associate who walked off the job in Lancaster, Texas, on Thursday evening. "And thousands of people in our cities and towns and all across the country are joining our calls for change at Walmart. We are overwhelmed by the support and proud of what we've achieved so quickly and about where we are headed."

As Huffington Post's Alice Hines put it: "the protests aimed at Walmart on what is traditionally the busiest shopping day of the year may constitute a test of the nation's sympathy for low-wage workers -- many of whom earn so little that they qualify for food stamps -- against the powerful American yearning for a great deal."

The question then, is will consumers who behave like this (outside Victoria's Secret at the Woodland Hills Mall in Tulsa, Oklahoma on Friday):

Be responsive to a campaign that has this to say?:

Ultimately, however, there may no be tension between the workers' demands for better compensation and treatment and the desire for consumers more broadly to enjoy a thriving economic environment.

As a new report ( by the non-partisan think tank Demos points out: "The continued dominance of low wages in this sector weakens our nation’s capacity to boost living standards and economic growth. Retail’s low-wage employment means that even Americans who work full-time fail to make ends meet, and growth slows because too few families have enough remaining in each paycheck to contribute to the broader economy."

The study found that by increasing the purchasing power of low-wage workers like those at Walmart and other major retailers, $4 to $5 billion in additional annual sales could be generated for the retail sector.

Such analysis does little to address the noxious scenes of shopper-pandemonium that take place annually on Black Friday, but at least the workers on the receiving end could receive a more equitable share of the profits generated.

Walmart Workers: Biggest Strike Against Biggest Employer Ever

With Biggest Strike Against Biggest Employer, Walmart Workers Make History Again
by Josh Eidelson

HANOVER and SEVERN, MD—For about twenty-four hours, Walmart workers, union members and a slew of other activists pulled off the largest-ever US strike against the largest employer in the world. According to organizers, strikes hit a hundred US cities, with hundreds of retail workers walking off the job (last month‘s strikes drew 160). Organizers say they also hit their goal of a thousand total protests, with all but four states holding at least one. In the process, they notched a further escalation against the corporation that’s done more than any other to frustrate the ambitions and undermine the achievements of organized labor in the United States.

"I’m so happy that this is history, that my grandkids can learn from this to stand up for themselves,” Miami striker Elaine Rozier told The Nation Thursday night. Before, “I always used to sit back and not say anything…. I’m proud of myself tonight.”

Rozier and her co-workers kicked off the Black Friday strike around 7:30 EST Thursday night; it rolled from Miami through big cities like Chicago and smaller ones like Tulsa, where overnight stocker Christopher Bentley Owen, agitated by an intimidating “captive audience” meeting, decided at the last minute to join the organization and became his store’s sole striker. After holding back because he didn’t plan to stay in his job for long, said Owen, he recognized that millions of other low-wage workers offer the same reason not to get involved. “Meanwhile,” he said, “there are millions of people in those jobs…at some point, people have to get together.”

By 9 am Friday, Walmart had already sent out a statement announcing its “best ever Black Friday events,” claiming that only fifty workers were on strike, and dismissing the action as a failure. Organizers accused Walmart of making up numbers, and noted that the company’s aggressive efforts to discourage participation undermined its supposed indifference.

The Black Friday strike came a year and a half after retail workers announced the founding of the new employee group OUR Walmart, five months after guest workers struck a Walmart seafood supplier and seven weeks after the country’s first-ever coordinated Walmart store strikes. Walmart striker Cindy Murray, a veteran of the last decade’s unsuccessful union-backed campaign against Walmart, said that after the 2008 election, “I was like, we have to do something different.” (Strikes at Walmart certainly qualify.) Murray said OUR Walmart has had greater success because workers saw it “as our organization,” as so they “finally said, maybe we can be saved. Maybe we can speak out.”

Murray helped lead a Friday morning march of four-hundred some workers and activists to Hanover, Maryland’s Capital Plaza Walmart. Chants included “Whose Walmart? Our Walmart!,” and “Stand up! Live better!” At the edge of the Walmart-controlled portion of the shopping center’s parking lot, leaders from Jobs with Justice asked a manager to commit not to punish the workers striking today; they say he replied that Walmart won’t retaliate, said it never does, and denied that a corporate vice president’s warning of potential “consequences” constituted a threat.

Asked whether the retaliation would get worse before it gets better, United Food & Commercial Workers union Organizing Director Pat O’Neill called it “a real possibility” and said it “would be a mistake.” “I think the workers are showing,” added O’Neill, “that they’re not going to be silenced.”

Retaliation was an ever-present theme of the day: an outrage that drove some workers to strike, a threat that led many more to stay at work, a focus of workers’ demands, and a question hanging over next week. Allegations of illegal retaliation provided workers greater potential legal protection to strike; puncturing any sense of safety about striking may have been the motivation for Walmart’s Labor Board charge alleging that the strikes were themselves illegal. And Walmart’s tactics over the past week may have taken a toll: organizers said that 100 DC-area Walmart store workers struck this week, but maybe no more than a dozen on Black Friday itself (they chalked this up to workers’ desire to cause more disruption earlier in the week while products were still being unloaded). Paramount, California, striker Maria Elena Jefferson said that some of her co-workers wouldn’t strike because “they think we’ll never win” and “they didn’t want to lose their jobs.” She said she hoped today’s actions–including a rally of well over 1,000 supporters in Paramount–would change their minds.

The Paramount rally included the day’s only planned civil disobedience, with three Walmart retail workers and six other supporters taking arrest for blocking Lakewood Boulevard. Other tactics were more common across the country, including subversive light shows and mic-checking flash mobs.

The Maryland protesters split up after their rally into two groups: a larger one which leafleted and caroled at a store in Laurel (“I saw Walmart fire Santa Claus”, “Deck the aisles with living wages”) and a smaller group of community activists that headed to nearby Severn. There, about fifty people walked quickly through the garden section, to the front of the store, and launched a mic check, the crowd echoing an organizer from Jobs with Justice as she read from a prepared script: “We call on Walmart to change. We call on Walmart to stop bullying.” After being warned by police, the group turned and left, chanting “We’ll be back.”

The Maryland rally, like the overall campaign, had close ties to the UFCW; most of the Hanover marchers arrived on a half dozen buses that departed from UFCW Local 400’s nearby union hall. Felicia Miller, a UFCW member working at Safeway as a deli clerk, told The Nation that Walmart is driving down standards for new workers at her unionized store. “The young people coming in, pay stinks now because of Walmart…” said Miller. “Because our companies are saying, If Walmart can get away with it, why can’t we?” She said the sight of Walmart workers on strike was “awesome. I’m here to support them all the way.”

While some observers are already deriding the strike for failing to bring Walmart to its knees, worker activists and staff organizers have long been talking about it as an escalation, not a climax. While on the picket line Thursday and Friday, workers were already talking about striking again, and hoping that their courage this time would embolden more workers to join in the next. “There’s going to be more days that we’re going to strike,” Rozier said last night, “and it’s not going to stop. I’m not going to stop until they respect us and give us what we want.” That’s in line with what the UFCW’s Dan Schlademan promised earlier this month: “This is a new permanent reality for Walmart…. Two thousand and twelve is the beginning of the season where retail workers are going to start to stand up.”

As he marched towards the Hanover Walmart this morning, former SEIU organizer Stephen Lerner credited the campaign with showing that workers, through strategic use of strikes, “can engage in actions that both make them feel powerful and that impact the company, and they don’t need to just spend their life waiting for some [National Labor Relations Board] process to demonstrate they want a union.” Lerner, the architect of the Justice for Janitors campaign, added, “What they’re really showing is, they’re acting like a union.”

By 9 pm EST Friday, the day’s last major action, a picket in San Leandro, California, with a dragon puppet and a “brass liberation band,” had come to a close. The three workers who’d been arrested in the afternoon had made it safely home. Tomorrow, the Walmart strikers are headed back to work, with at least one exception: a San Leandro worker who wanted to strike but was scheduled for days off on Thursday and Friday. She’ll be striking tomorrow.

© 2012 The Nation

Josh Eidelson is a freelance writer and a union organizer based in Philadelphia. He's written about politics and organizing as a Campus Progress contributor, a Talking Points Memo research fellow, and a Yale Daily News columnist. He's worked as an organizer for five years since receiving his MA and BA in Political Science. Check out his blog ( or follow him on Twitter (

Dumping on Low-Wage Workers is Lousy Direct Action

by Sarah Jaffe

The picket line outside the Secaucus, N.J., Walmart at 1 p.m. on Black Friday was joyous, festive and celebratory. The sousaphonist from the Rude Mechanical Orchestra had the slogan “Stand Up, Live Better” around the rim of his instrument, and banners declared solidarity with the striking Walmart workers and support for union rights. They called on the world’s largest private employer to pay its workers a living wage and stop retaliation — the firing or punishing of workers who speak out about their working conditions. The crowd sang “Solidarity Forever” in all its glory, shaking fists at the “greedy parasites.”

At least as far as I could tell, though, there were no striking workers at this particular Walmart.

Around the country, hundreds of Walmart workers walked off the job on Black Friday, the notorious shopping day after Thanksgiving. Organizers say that a hundred cities saw strikers and a thousand total protests were held, covering all but four states, in an escalation of an ongoing campaign led by the Organization United for Respect at Walmart (OUR Walmart). They drew support from Occupy organizers, unions, community members and elected officials; Congressman-elect Alan Grayson walked one striker out of a store in Florida, and Senator Sherrod Brown of Ohio told me, “I commend the workers who are exercising their rights to protest in order to improve conditions for other working Americans.”

Black Friday has grown into a symbol, to many, of the rot at the heart of American consumer capitalism, with people clawing and trampling one another in the rush to get the lowest price on holiday purchases. It has been the target of protest before, with the competing Buy Nothing Day dating back to the anti-corporate mobilizations of the 1990s. But this year at Walmart was different because the actions were called for by workers themselves, in the midst of a sustained campaign for better wages, hours and treatment.

Last year, as Susie Cagle reported, Occupy Oakland and other groups prepared a Black Friday action that was meant to disrupt the flow of commerce. Occupiers filled carts with merchandise, got into line, and then left the full carts there, moving on to another big box retailer.

While they also distributed flyers and prepared a banner drop opposing sweatshop labor, as Cagle noted, there’s a problem with this kind of action.

“During and after my coverage of the Occupy Oakland action in Emeryville, several people wrote to me on Twitter over the weekend expressing concern,” Cagle explained. “The majority were retail workers themselves, annoyed at the extra work of having to replace large amounts of stock on an already very busy day. A common refrain was, ‘We’re the 99% too.’”

Cagle posed the dilemma poignantly: “How do you attack consumerism without attacking consumers — or workers?”

This year, before Black Friday, some activists were advocating this same kind of prank. But tactics like this tend to fall not on the corporation’s bosses, safely ensconced in high-rise offices or gated campuses, but on the workers just trying to make ends meet. While many workers did strike on Black Friday, far more others went to work, unable or unwilling to risk the retaliation of their bosses — or perhaps just not yet reached by the organizers.

There’s a difference between a protest and a strike, of course — even a protest called for specifically by the workers at a company. The protests outside of Walmarts on Black Friday this year were called for as a gesture of deep solidarity for workers who might strike, to let them know that their communities had their backs.

By contrast, leaving full carts lying around in the store is largely an empty gesture not of solidarity, but of misdirected anger.

Nation reporter Allison Kilkenny and I went inside the store ahead of the activists. Walmart officials weren’t letting the reporters wearing formal press passes through the doors — they claimed this is their usual policy — but we walked in anyway and circulated throughout the store until we heard a “Mic check!” ring out. When the police and store security shut that speak-out down, another one started up, and the picketers played cat-and-mouse with security while offering their messages of support, repeating OUR Walmart’s call for an end to retaliation, better wages and reliable scheduling. One of the mic checks was in Spanish. When a group of mic-checkers accidentally knocked over a display while being hustled by police, they turned to clean it up rather than fleeing the scene. Little things like this matter.

Later, though, I was discussing the action with journalists Doug Henwood and Liza Featherstone, and they told me that they had been exhorted to go into the store and make purchases with small change. They refused, thankfully, making the point that doing so would not punish anyone — Walmart would still be making its money, even if that money was literally in pennies — except that it would leave the worker who would have to count and double-count those coins with a headache, an irate line of customers and an angry manager demanding to know why her line is moving so slowly. This is the ultimate empty gesture: You can’t even claim to be cutting into Walmart’s profit margins. Literally the only thing you’d be doing is making a worker’s day a little bit harder.

In her essay “Maid to Order,” Barbara Ehrenreich wrote, “To make a mess that another person will have to deal with — the dropped socks, the toothpaste sprayed on the bathroom mirror, the dirty dishes left from a late-night snack — is to exert domination in one of its more silent and intimate forms.” Ehrenreich was talking about domestic work, but her critique applies to the broader service sector as well — she worked both at Walmart and as a maid while writing her book Nickel & Dimed.

Historian Bethany Moreton explains in To Serve God and Wal-Mart that the company’s business model grew and was shaped by its largely female workforce in its home territory of the rural South. Those women went straight from dealing with dropped socks and dirty dishes at home to straightening displays and folding clothes left behind by customers at Walmart. That those workers were mostly women (and continue to be largely women) is a central reason for the continued lack of respect for the service work they do.

Leaving a mess behind you at a Walmart, even if you leave a flyer explaining why you did it, isn’t going to help those workers organize and fight for better conditions on the job, and it’s not going to stop the progress of global capital or even make a dent in that store’s profits for that day. It’s simply going to make more work for those same workers to deal with.

In Kearny, picketers stood at the entrance to the Walmart parking lot, holding signs that said “Honk to support Walmart workers.” There were plenty of honks, both from cars pulling into the lot and from passing trucks. Inside the store, activists (until being chased out by security) handed flyers to customers, most of whom cast at least a glance at them before continuing on their way. The mic checks at Kearny and Secaucus drew crowds and smartphone photos. Other onlookers shook their heads, bemused but unmoved, and kept on going. Yet there was another critical constituency that we needed to deal with when protesting Black Friday: the shoppers.

As I chatted with folks I knew at the picket line, a woman approached us and said that if we wanted to join the action inside the store, we should join a group over “that way.” As she walked off, she laughed, saying, “I’ve never been inside a Walmart in my life!”

In some ways this was just reflective of where we were; Secaucus is home to the largest Walmart close to Walmart-free New York City, so many of the people who came to join the picket were New Yorkers who didn’t have a local Walmart even if they wanted one. But it’s important to remember that many of the people who fill these stores in search of markdowns on big-screen TVs and Xboxes are making Walmart-like wages themselves. They couldn’t buy that TV otherwise. And as we show up to support the people working inside those stores in their fight against their bosses, we need to be conscious of whose life we want to make miserable — of, as the song goes, which side we are on.

In the past 30 years, as Doug Henwood has shown, strikes have fallen off considerably; that this year had both a major strike of Chicago’s teachers and the first-ever strikes in Walmart’s 50-year history is a good sign. But it means that these strikes are happening in the midst of a generation of young activists not used to seeing them, not used to taking a back seat to the workers themselves in planning actions, and used instead to an activist culture that has embraced pranks and Yes Men-style stunts. A progressive figure as well known as José Antonio Vargas was able to get away with crossing the picket line of Hyatt hotel workers outside of the Online News Association conference; he later told Colorlines‘ Rinku Sen that he hoped he could still work with unions in the future, but he felt his speech was important enough to warrant crossing that line.

Pranks and stunts are great for getting attention and reaching people who might otherwise not notice a more typical protest, but we need to be careful not to let them become an end in themselves. Such actions, practiced carelessly, can damage years of deep, fragile organizing to build worker power. A flash mob is great fun, but when it’s gone the workers still have to face their boss, who has control of the days and hours they get to work, what kind of work they do, and, ultimately, the paychecks that they will or will not bring home to their families. Make the workers regret your showing up, and the odds of them ever going out on strike themselves will dwindle.

“You don’t want to talk for them, because they have their own mouths,” Quadeer Porter, who had organized the action at the Walmart in Kearny, N.J., told me. “But you see civil disservice being done, you stand up.”

That’s the essence of solidarity action: Don’t assume that you know what is best for the people being impacted, because they can speak for themselves. You will do better if you are working together. It’s especially important in the case of OUR Walmart, which is based in a form of “minority unionism” that relies on individual workers or small groups striking at stores across the country rather than the whole workforce at one location going out. For one solitary worker considering striking by herself, a glance outside at a crowd singing “Solidarity Forever” might tip the balance one way, while a full cart in her checkout line that she has to clean up after might swing it the other.

Not every action can or should happen without angering anyone; mic checks and flyering and picketing Walmart surely made some shoppers rethink their priorities on Black Friday and hopefully caused headaches at corporate headquarters. Hard picket lines and blockades such as the one at the Keystone XL pipeline are deliberately designed to stop work whether the workers like it or not, and that doesn’t mean those kinds of actions are wrong. But such actions should also be taken with the awareness that workers need better options — a real social safety net that works in times of unemployment, or jobs that don’t require helping destroy the climate — and that right now, they often don’t have a choice.

Campaigns that aim to bring change to Walmart or other global megacorporations require more than momentary actions. Sustained worker organizing within Walmart and its supply chain provides the best opportunity to actually make a difference in the company’s practices. What outsiders do on days of action need to support that organizing, not compete with it.

As OUR Walmart continues to build its campaign — one that has already succeeded where many well-intentioned union campaigns and outsider protests have failed — there will be more calls for support. We need to be conscious of what that support means, and what it means to work in solidarity with those most impacted, rather than speaking for them.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 United States License

Sarah Jaffe is an independent journalist, a rabblerouser and contributor to AlterNet, The Nation, Jacobin and others. Follow her exploits on Twitter @sarahljaffe.

Workers in 10 Countries Call to End Walmart's Silencing Workers

December 14, 2012
3:05 PM

CONTACT: Making Change at Walmart
Lynsey Kryzwick, 646-200-5311,
Jamie Way, 202-721-8015,

Workers in 10 Countries Call for an End to the Silencing of Workers at Walmart
Walmart Worker Protests Spread Globally

MIAMI - December 14 - US Walmart workers were joined by Walmart workers in nine countries on Friday to call for an end to Walmart’s attempts to silence workers for speaking out for changes at the world’s largest employer. As Walmart workers and community supporters marched in front of a Walmart store in Miami, workers in Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Nicaragua, Canada, the United Kingdom, South Africa, Zambia and India held their own rallies, marches, and other actions at Walmart and Walmart subsidiary stores. During the protests, workers cited the negative impacts that the silencing is having on their families, the economy and the company’s bottom-line.

At the protests across the globe, workers held a moment of silence to honor the victims of the factory fire in Bangladesh that tragically claimed the lives of 112 workers. Recent reports show that Walmart “played a leading role in blocking an effort” to improve electrical and fire safety systems in factories in the country.

“Walmart must stop its attempts to silence those who speak out. We are standing up for what is right for our families and the global economy,” said Elaine Rozie, an OUR Walmart member from the Hialeah store in Miami Gardens, Fl. Rozie is a seven-year associate who despite works full-time at Walmart still has to depend on public assistance to make ends meet. “As the largest retailer in the world, Walmart should be setting a standard for good, safe jobs. The benefits of having steady, well-trained workers in stores and along the supply chain will help Walmart improve customer service ratings and its reputation, which is good business.”

“We are inspired by OUR Walmart members who are standing up for a better future for all of our families,” said Louisa Plaatjies, a worker from South Africa. In October, workers from seven countries – where workers all have union representation – launched the UNI Walmart Global Union Alliance to fight for fairness, decent working conditions, and the fundamental human right of freedom of association. ”We are will continue to stand up with our brothers and sisters in the United States until Walmart starts listening to the workers that keep the store running.”

The global protests held today build on the ongoing calls for change at Walmart. In November, community members and Walmart workers held more than 1,000 demonstrations, including strikes in 100 cities, during the Black Friday shopping rush in protest of the company’s illegal attempts to silence workers for speaking out about the company’s manipulation of hours and benefits, efforts to try to keep people from working full-time and its discrimination against women and people of color. The Black Friday strike wave came a little more than a month after OUR Walmart leaders held the first-ever strikes against the mega-retailer. In just one year, OUR Walmart has grown from a group of 100 Walmart workers to an army of thousands of Associates across 43 states.

“The Walmart workers may come from different cultures and continents but they are united in their opposition to Walmart’s cynical and systematic squeezing of its employees to maximize profit, be it the US dollar, the South African rand, the Indian rupee, the Argentine peso or any other currency,” said the International UNI Global Union General Secretary, Philip Jennings. “Walmart has gone too far. US Walmart workers have had enough and they are fighting back as we saw on Black Friday and every day since. The Alliance is standing with them not just in solidarity but in strength and in action.”

Workers like Jesus Vargas, who have been illegally fired, targeted by management or other retaliation for speaking out, are also raising their voices. More than 30 federal charges against Walmart have already been filed, with another 60 allegations against Walmart’s illegal threats currently under investigation.

“Walmart, we will not be silenced,” Vargas said. Vargas, who was unjustly fired for speaking out at his store in California, has filed a federal charge against Walmart. “We are coming together to be heard and to create good jobs that workers in America and across the globe need.”

With so many Americans struggling to make ends meet and Walmart taking in $16 billion in profits and compensating its executives $10 million each, workers and community leaders have been calling on Walmart and Chairman Rob Walton to address the wage gap the company is creating. At the same time frontline Walmart workers are facing financial hardships, the Walton Family – heirs to the Walmart fortune – are the richest family in the country with more wealth than the bottom 42% of American families combined.

Workers’ concerns about wages and staffing have been affirmed by newly uncovered company pay-plans exposed by the Huffington Post (, recent poor sales reports and a new study on wage trends in the retail industry. Huffington Post uncovered what reporters call “a rigid pay structure for hourly employees that makes it difficult for most to rise much beyond poverty-level wages.” Meanwhile, last week’s sales reports show that understaffing, which affects workers’ scheduling and take-home pay, is also having an impact on company sales. Last week’s sales report showed that Walmart’s comp store sales are about half what competitors like Target reported in the same quarter, continuing a pattern of underperformance by the world’s largest retailer.

As workers and community supporters call for changes at Walmart, a new report by the national public policy center Demos, shows that better jobs at Walmart and other large retailers would have an impact on our economy ( A wage floor equivalent of $25,000 per year for a full-time, year-round employee for retailers with more than 1000 employees would lift 1.5 million retail workers and their families out of poverty or near poverty, add to economic growth, increase retail sales and create more than 100,000 new jobs. The findings in the study prove there is a flaw in the conventional thinking by companies like Walmart that profits, low prices, and decent wages cannot coexist.

Follow the conversation and see photos on Twitter: #WalmartStrikers and @ForRespect and @ChangeWalmart

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