Rick Wilking / Reuters

Walmart workers launch Black Friday protest

For three years, protesters have gone to Walmart on Black Friday, demanding a $15 minimum wage and more consistent work

NORTH BERGEN, N.J. — For Barbara Gertz, a 46-year-old Walmart employee, going on strike to protest the low pay and poor working conditions at her job was a frightening prospect. But when a series of anxiety attacks induced by financial stress landed her in the emergency room, she realized she had to do something.

Gertz has worked for Walmart for six years and has a full-time position with benefits. But she says her $10.30 hourly wage with an extra $2.50 an hour for working overnights doesn’t cover her basic living expenses.

“There are numerous times when I have to scrounge for change or borrow a nickel to buy a 30-cent ramen noodle meal,” she says, as she climbs onto a bus to attend a Black Friday protest rally with other members of Organization United for Respect at Walmart (OUR Walmart) at one of the companies flagship stores in North Bergen, New Jersey. “All we’re asking for is a living wage to support ourselves and our families. That should be a basic right.”

For the past three years, OUR Walmart, a worker based group that is backed by the United Food and Commercial Workers Union, has been staging protests to highlight their demands for a $15 minimum hourly wage and consistent schedules. This Black Friday morning, hundreds of protesters rallied outside the North Bergen store with similar protests planned at over 1,600 stores nationwide.

These rallies cap off a week of actions that saw workers in at least 10 states walk off the job. On Wednesday, workers in the new Washington, D.C. store, sat down on the shop floor with masking tape over their mouths to protest the silencing of employees who complain about working conditions and on Thanksgiving, workers in Los Angeles staged a 24-hour fast.

But despite the growing intensity of the protests, the OUR Walmart workers call for a $15 an hour pay rate is unlikely to be met anytime soon.

“Most of our associates are very happy,” Walmart’s communication director, Kory Lundberg said on Wednesday, adding that the company offers good jobs with competitive wages, benefits and opportunities for advancement. Lundberg also said that many of the people who show up at the protests are not even Walmart employees.

Indeed, among the protesters in New Jersey were members of the clergy and various union representatives. But Gertz said many Walmart workers who support the OUR Walmart demands are afraid to publicly protest for fear of retaliation.

Inside the store, another worker, who asked to be identified only as Elizabeth, reiterated that sentiment. “There are a lot of unhappy people here,” she said as she stacked shelves with packaged mac and cheese and other low cost food items. “No one,” she added, “is getting paid enough, and our schedules are terrible.”

Elizabeth earns $9.40 an hour and though she typically works 35 to 40 hours a week, she is a part-time employee, so she doesn’t qualify for any benefits. She also said that very few workers in the store have consistent schedules, which makes it difficult to find a second job that would help make ends meet.

“We live off this kind of cheap food,” she says, “and sometimes there isn’t even enough money left to buy that. If I didn’t have family, I would go hungry.”

Hunger has been a central theme in this year’s campaign. OUR Walmart set up a “hunger games” tumblr page, which workers filled with stories of their troubles affording food.

Last year at Thanksgiving, one Walmart store even organized a food drive for needy employees. This year a food bin appeared outside the Park Avenue home of Alice Walton, the billionaire daughter of Walmart founder Sam Walton, emblazoned with the inscription: “We don’t want charity. We want decent pay.”

Still Lundberg says that while the company is concerned about workers with food insecurity issues, Walmart offers ample opportunity to employees to advance their careers and earn more pay.

He pointed out that Walmart changed its scheduling practices in April to allow hourly workers to sign up for extra shifts and that over 170,000 associates were promoted to better positions in the past year. He also said that the majority of associates are full time and close to half earn at least $25,000 a year.

“There is a reason that the hungry people choose to come to work for us,” he said. “The Walmart job is a good job.”

Some labor experts, however, beg to differ. A 2007 UC Berkeley study pointed out that not only did Walmart workers typically earn less than workers at other major retailers, but also that the opening of a single Walmart store in a county depressed wages there by between 0.5 percent and 0.9 percent.

Former labor secretary, Robert Reich has called Walmart “the poster child for keeping low-wage workers down.”

Reich and others have argued that because of the company’s size, if they were to raise wages of their 1.3 million workers, it would boost wages across the sector and even help their own bottom line.

For the past three years sales at Walmart U.S. have been declining, something the former CEO Bill Simon attributed in part to decreasing wage rates among their customer base.

“The thing that really bothers me is that Walmart could be a great employer and could do so much for the economy, but they just choose not to,” Gertz said as she walked through the parking lot in North Bergen with the crowds of protesters, “but we’ll keep on fighting to make them change their minds.”

Walmart is among many retailers offering big sales in the period between Thanksgiving and Christmas.
Neda Djavaherian

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