Pedro Taverna, 18, takes part in a protest outside a Wal-Mart store in Los Angeles on Nov. 7.Lucy Nicholson/Reuters
Anthony Goytia isn’t protesting because he hates Wal-Mart.
Goytia has worked part-time stocking shelves on the overnight shift at store No. 2401, in Duarte, Calif., for a little over a year.
“I actually do like my job. It’s fast-paced, and time goes by quick,” he said. “But last year I made $12,000. I’m a husband. I have four kids. It’s not enough. I’m living in poverty.”
Goytia is a member of Organization United for Respect at Walmart (OUR Walmart), which is backed by the United Food and Commercial Workers union. He has taken part in several protests for better wages and working conditions at the store, including one in early November, when 54 people were arrested during protests at a new Wal-Mart store in Los Angeles.
Goytia will also take part in widespread protests against Wal-Mart on Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving, when stores across the country discount merchandise to entice holiday shoppers.
As retailers gear up for what they say will be a shopping season of unprecedented profits, activist groups and small-business organizations are hoping to capitalize on a year of public anger over labor practices at retailers such as Wal-Mart.
Anger over Wal-Mart policies is nothing new. But analysts say that increasing attention to income inequality makes this year’s Black Friday a potential turning point in the low-wage-labor movement.
Some consumers, however, have already begun the wait in line for Black Friday sales. And it is unclear whether increased attention will translate into a change in consumer sentiment.
A controversial year
Wal-Mart is not the only corporation in the spotlight, but it is by far the biggest — and this year proved an especially potent one for Wal-Mart controversy. The retail giant seemed to unable to avoid scandal: from reports that the company’s environmental policies are failing, to revelations that the Bangladesh factory that collapsed in April, killing more than 1,000 workers, produced goods for Wal-Mart, to stories highlighting the company’s low wages in the United States.
Groups critical of Wal-Mart existed before 2013, but this year they have been better coordinated and more willing to use controversial tactics to get their points across, according to Stephanie Luce, a labor studies professor at the City University of New York.
Luce and other experts say that because incomes are stagnating for many Americans, issues such as Wal-Mart’s wages may seem more relevant this year.
“With declines in unions and offshoring, we’re really seeing a change in how these issues are being viewed,” said Ken Jacobs, head of the Labor Center at the University of California, Berkeley. “(People) are paying more attention to issues of inequality and low-wage work. And Wal-Mart is the triumph of the low wage.”
The increased attention to worker issues has convinced labor organizers that this Friday’s protests will be the biggest yet. OUR Walmart said there will be about 1,500 actions nationwide, most of them in front of Wal-Mart stores.
A company representative told Al Jazeera that the group’s claim of 1,500 protests was grossly inflated.
“They’re nothing more than a made-for-TV event,” said Wal-Mart spokesman Kory Lundberg. “There are so few people working for this company that are actually participating.”
Goytia, the employee, says that is partly true — the vast majority of Wal-Mart’s 1.3 million U.S. workers will not be out protesting on Black Friday. But he said that is because the company has intimidated its employees when they have tried to organize. A National Labor Relations Board review found merit in some complaints from workers who were fired after demonstrating against Wal-Mart.
Not just Wal-Mart
Anti-large-retailer sentiment has grown beyond Wal-Mart workers. Small businesses have also come out against big-box retailers. Small-business owners are encouraging customers to shop at locally owned stores through programs like Small Business Saturday.
And there are groups taking on retail itself in a broader way. On Friday, Adbusters magazine will celebrate its annual Buy Nothing Day, which encourages people to ditch consumerism in favor of political activism.
However, it is not clear how much any of these protests and campaigns can change Wal-Mart or any other big retailer. Wal-Mart has dismissed protesters’ claims of exploitation.
And critics point out that small-business sales have remained stagnant despite efforts from groups such as Small Business Saturday.
Experts say the most effective driver of change for these corporations may not be protests but money.
Wal-Mart’s sales have declined for three quarters in a row. It has lagged in online commerce as well. While Amazon continues to grow, e-commerce accounts for only 2 percent of Wal-Mart’s sales.
Other big retailers are not doing much better. Target’s earnings dropped by nearly 50 percent this quarter compared with last year. And Sears, which owns Kmart, had losses of $5.03 a share in the most recent quarter.
These companies may fret over worker protests, but empty stores are a bigger concern.
“Wal-Mart workers are Wal-Mart shoppers, so to the extent that wages have stagnated, it’s not surprising that sales have stagnated as well,” said CUNY’s Luce. “If every employer pays low wages, then no one will be there to buy anything. That’s why this issue is bigger than Wal-Mart.”