Black Friday protests, fights but also record sales for Walmart

Workers'-rights groups staged actions across the US, but that didn't deter bargain hunters

A Walmart employee rings up purchases in the Crenshaw district of Los Angeles on Black Friday, Nov. 29, 2013.

Walmart reported "record-breaking" Black Friday sales, despite protests against the retail giant's labor practices, reports of violence among frenzied shoppers and predictions that pre-Thanksgiving discounts would dampen consumer enthusiasm for the traditional shopping day.

Kory Lundberg, a spokesman for the chain, told Al Jazeera that in a span of four hours Thursday evening, Walmart stores across the nation processed 10 million register transactions. On Thanksgiving, received 400 million page views, and on Friday, by noon, customers had purchased 2.8 million towels, 2 million televisions and 1.4 million computer tablets.

"We had record-breaking Black Friday results in our stores," Lundberg said. 

He added that Walmart did not anticipate that protests — which have been ongoing and were expected to reach a peak on Black Friday — would affect sales as the day progressed. But workers'-rights group the Organization United for Respect at Walmart (OUR Walmart), a subsidiary of the United Food and Commercial Workers union, said that hundreds of rallies had taken place, calling on the retailer to pay their employees better.

A number of Walmart staffers took part in the protests. Meggan McKinley, a 21-year-old salesperson, was among 13 arrested for standing in a four-lane highway in Balch Springs, Texas, in a bid to stop customers from getting to the store.

Prior to the Black Friday protest, Walmart had filed for a restraining order against OUR Walmart in Texas. Similar orders were filed in California, Arkansas, Maryland and Florida.

Two of those arrested at Balch Springs were Walmart employees, and about 30 people participated in the demonstration. 

"We are not slaves. We are people just as well," McKinley told Al Jazeera. "At the end of the day, we want the things that the people who run Walmart have ... We shouldn't have to pick and choose what bills we are going to pay."

In her four months at Walmart, McKinley says, she has made little over $2,400.

In all, some 1,500 protests were expected across the nation, organizers told Al Jazeera. Throughout the day, there were reports of protesters being arrested while participating in demonstrations. Lundberg expressed some skepticism about the scale of the demonstrations, saying that claims regarding the number of Walmart employees taking part had been "exaggerated."

"They claim 1,500 actions. An action could be as simple as a tweet or a letter," he said. "By and large, they (protesters) are not associates or affiliated with the company in any way."

McKinley suggested that many Walmart employees would not participate in demonstrations because they feared retribution from their bosses.

"The way they implement fear at my store is real," she said. "For the people who are afraid, I thought, 'I am standing up for you.'"

In the face of an apparent attempt to downplay the numbers involved, workers'-rights advocates put forward Walmart employees Friday in a conference call with journalists.

Dorothy Halverson, a Walmart worker based in Placerville, Calif., appeared confident about the number of participants in Friday's demonstrations.

"We are out in force today," she said. "Our voices are stronger than ever before."

"I am nervous," she added, "but I refuse to live in fear. And we refuse to continue trying to make it on Walmart's low pay, manipulative scheduling and retaliation."

Halverson said that Walmart makes $17 billion annually and that "it's not right that workers like me are paid under $25,000 a year."

Halverson said that after 11 years as a Walmart employee, she was forced to take a four-month leave of absence to undergo surgery and care for her husband, who was dying of cancer. When she returned to work after his death, she says, she took a pay cut and was "demoted to part time."

"We are respectful of people who have an opinion to voice, but we think they should do it in an appropriate, respectful and lawful way," Lundberg said.

On Nov. 18, the National Labor Relations Board, the federal body charged with protecting workers' rights, told Al Jazeera it had "found merit" in a number of complaints that the company retaliated or threatened to retaliate against employees for engaging — or being suspected of wanting to engage — in demonstrations at stores in 13 states across the country.

By 3:00 P.M. Eastern time Friday, protest organizers were unable to give Al Jazeera estimates on the number of protesters involved in its nationwide actions, the number of Walmart employees involved or the number of strikes at Walmart stores in the lead-up to Black Friday.

Protesters are demanding a $25,000 annual minimum wage for Walmart workers and an end to retaliation for coordinated action to address labor-rights concerns.

"The workers do not want a handout. They don't want a food bank or a toy drive," said state Sen. Norma Torres, D.-Calif., Friday, referring to reports that Walmart was accepting donations from its employees to help fellow employees celebrate Thanksgiving.

Wal-Mart told Al Jazeera the donation campaign was part of a long-running program designed not to supplement employees' incomes but rather to help them with financial strains caused by deaths in the family or natural disasters.

Aside from the protests, there were sporadic reports of fighting among shoppers at Walmart and other superstores as they launched the holiday shopping season with sales events.

Police in Garfield, N.J., told Al Jazeera that a 23-year-old man was arrested after getting into a fight with a Walmart manager as customers poured into the store Thursday evening. An altercation at a Walmart at San Bernadino County, Calif., on Thursday night left one police officer and two people wounded in a parking lot.

In Romeoville, Ill., a Chicago suburb, police shot a shoplifter Thursday night who fled a local Kohl's department store, a department representative said.  

Authorities in all three locations told Al Jazeera there had been no other shopping-related incidents Friday.   

Prior to Black Friday’s action, Walmart filed for restraining orders against OUR Walmart in Texas, California, Arkansas, Maryland and Florida.

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