On the Line at Wal-Mart

Alan Maass and Darrin Hoop Nov 26, 2012

Davids around the country sent a message to a corporate Goliath when workers Wal-Mart stores stayed away from their jobs on Black Friday after Thanksgiving, and supporters joined them for protests at as many as 1,000 stores in all but four of the 50 states.

The Black Friday walkouts and rallies were the latest escalation of the struggle for living wages, better conditions and respect on the job at Wal-Mart. The call for action came from OUR Walmart, an organization led by store workers and supported by organized labor, including the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) union.
The struggle at Wal-Mart has been building fast, with strikes by warehouse workers in Southern California and outside Chicago in September, followed by the first-ever coordinated walkout by Wal-Mart store workers in early October. More workers walked out on Black Friday, according to OUR Walmart, and they were joined by an impressive turnout of supporters in many cities.
"I'm so happy that this is history–that my grandkids can learn from this to stand up for themselves," Elaine Rozier, a Wal-Mart worker in Miami who joined the walkout, told The Nation. "I always used to sit back and not say anything…I'm proud of myself tonight."
The Black Friday protests began the night before, thanks to another money-making scheme that Wal-Mart introduced last year: starting Black Friday sales on the evening of Thanksgiving, which wrecks the holiday for workers who have to prepare the store before opening.
"They had us working all day long on Thanksgiving," said Tony Zollo, as he picketed the next day outside a Wal-Mart in Philadelphia. "We were unloading five trucks yesterday and bringing it immediately out to the sales floor while the store was fully operable and had customers in it…Then on top of that, we got back, and they wanted us to work a second 10-hour shift after we got off of our 12, starting immediately."
Spokespeople for Wal-Mart tried to downplay the action, claiming that only 50 "associates" took part around the country and insisting that Black Friday sales were better than ever.
But OUR Walmart's strategy is built around taking the first steps with a core of workers who are ready to take a stand, knowing that they represent much larger numbers of co-workers.
At a Black Friday rally at a store in Renton, Wash., southeast of Seattle, Rickey Martin, who has worked for Wal-Mart for nearly five years, said that there were 20 members of OUR Walmart among the 350 or so workers at the store. "But out of the 20 of us, there's really only two or three or maybe four of us who are willing to stand up," he said. "Everything has to start somewhere. Let it start with me."
The number of workers willing to participate in a walkout may remain a small minority, but this is still a big step forward. As Labor Notes reported:
OUR Walmart has come a long way since last Thanksgiving, when it had about 100 members. The United Food and Commercial Workers-backed group has spread to 43 states and grown to thousands of members, who pay dues of $5 a month. It's the third union-seeded attempt in a decade to organize at the retail giant and has far outstripped previous efforts.
OUR Walmart leaders say they always expected Black Friday to be another step along a long road of struggle.
And indeed, Wal-Mart faced numerous local actions in the lead-up to Black Friday, as workers walked off the jobs in protest against poor working conditions or management abuse and retaliation–issues which give the workers some protection under U.S. labor law. According to Josh Eidelson, reporting on the Wal-Mart struggle for the Nation, organizers in the Washington, D.C., area said that some 100 workers struck over the course of the week before Thanksgiving, but no more than a dozen did on Black Friday itself.
Plus, OUR Walmart members believe the Black Friday walkouts and rallies will boost the confidence of those who may have been intimidated by Wal-Mart's veiled threats and its long history of retaliating against workers who speak out.
At 64, Barbara Holland is one of the older workers at the Wal-Mart in Renton–and one of the store veterans, with 13 years on the job. But Holland says that means she does "a lot of talking for the workers…they won't say anything, but they'll come to me." Holland thinks the demonstrations will give her co-workers the courage to speak up about the disrespect and abuse they face:
I feel I have to do this because one day, they're going to have enough courage to stand up and say: I have rights…Just like the people before us. They fought the fight. We have to fight the fight so we can live. I'm talking about Martin Luther King. I'm talking about Malcolm X–by any means necessary. If you're doing what you need to do, then you stand up for what's right, and you keep standing up.
For the many hundreds of labor activists who came out to the rallies to support Wal-Mart workers, the importance of these actions was obvious. Jessica Bonebright, president of the Martin Luther King Jr. County Labor Council in Seattle, pointed out that Wal-Mart leads the way in "union-busting and doing everything they can to keep their workers from getting a union wage. Until we can stop them from that, they are a role model for other companies. We have to go after the big guy."
Reports from readers around the country gave a sense of the enthusiasm for this stand against the very symbol of corporate greed and union-busting.
— In Paramount, Calif., south of Los Angeles, more than 1,000 people, including Wal-Mart workers, unionists from across the region, community and Occupy activists, and clergy, attended the largest reported Black Friday action in the country.
"I'm hoping events like today's action will give others the courage to speak up against the unfairness that Wal-Mart shows its employees," said Victoria Martinez, an OUR Walmart member who works at the nearby Pico Rivera store, where 70 workers walked out in October.
Nearly a dozen employees of the Paramount store participated in the Black Friday strike. And in an act of civil disobedience, eight people, including Wal-Mart workers, clergy and union activists, were led away in handcuffs after blocking an intersection.
Maria, a Wal-Mart employee for over six years, said in an interview:
There is no respect. They won't give us full time hours, so they don't have to pay us benefits. You have to work 32 hours a week to get benefits. But they will only give me four-and-a-half hours of work per day at $8.40 an hour. It's impossible to feed your family on that. For Christmas, they promised us a $600 bonus. Then they changed it to $300. At the end, they gave us $125.
Manolo is a temporary worker at the warehouse in Riverside County where 30 workers went on strike in September. The strikers participated in a 50-mile, six-day walk to downtown LA. Similarly to members of OUR Walmart, warehouse workers also face punishment for organizing and speaking out. Manolo said: "I used to work six days a week, but since I went on strike, I work a lot less because they refuse to give me enough hours."
The Paramount action was endorsed by the LA County Federation of Labor and was the largest of several actions in support of Wal-Mart workers across LA County.
— In Chicago, hundreds of people gathered at 5:30 a.m. on the Southwest Side, sharing coffee and doughnuts as they waited to board a caravan of yellow school buses that traveled between multiple Wal-Mart sites for pickets and rallies.
A broad array of unions and community groups were represented: the Chicago Teachers Union, SEIU Healthcare Illinois and Indiana Southsiders For Peace, Teamsters Local 743, the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists and the UFCW, to name a few.
Michael Brunson, recording secretary of the Chicago Teachers Union, participated in the day's rallies. He talked about the connections between the fight at Wal-Mart and other struggles:
We need to make people aware of the role Wal-Mart is playing in undermining our public education system through their role in the so-called "school reform" movement. The attack on all things public, including public education, public workers and public pensions, in addition to the attack on labor are all coming from the same sources. Connect the dots!
At least 10 Wal-Mart workers walked off the job in Chicago, and the first raucous rally of the day had over 400 people. It was staged on the sidewalk outside of a store in the South Side neighborhood of Chatham. Protesters marched to the store's entrance and distributed fliers to customers before being asked to leave by police.
At an impromptu press conference, store worker Charmaine Gibbons Thomas explained: "I want them to understand that we just want to make a basic wage, a living wage to be able to pay our bills." She was joined by Mike Compton, a member of Warehouse Workers for Justice and a participant in the September strike at Wal-Mart's massive distribution center in Elwood, southwest of Chicago, who talked about the hazardous working conditions at the facility and the challenges of forming a union.
Afterward, the group divided into two and traveled to four other Wal-Mart sites to show solidarity with the striking workers. Despite police intimidation at several sites, demonstrators kept up spirited protests and pickets, with chants of "What's outrageous? Unfair wages! What's disgusting? Union-busting!" Shoppers drove past and honked in solidarity.
— In San Leandro, Calif., south of Oakland, around 400 people rallied on Black Friday to support striking workers at a Wal-Mart store. The crowd was made up of supporters from the community, union members and elected officials, as well as workers from other Wal-Mart locations.
Wal-Mart workers said they are fed up with difficult working conditions, wrongful firings and disrespect from managers.
The protest was spirited and got large enough to spill out off the sidewalk and into the street. A long picket line was formed in front of the store, with workers and supporters chanting "Stand up, live better!" "We have been working for months to get this turnout," said Dominic Ware, who was on strike for the day from the San Leandro store. "I can stand up straight knowing that I have the community behind me."
Many supporters were from various unions. Katy, a member of the California Nurses Association said, "It's inspiring that these workers are standing up without the protection of a union, and that they're standing up to the biggest and most profitable corporation in the world."
Derik, who works at a Wal-Mart in Fremont, where a smaller protest took place earlier in the day, said workers there walked out to protest hours being cut and conditions that are so demanding that "workers are being set up to fail," he said.
— In Richmond, Calif., in the East Bay more than 300 people turned out on Black Friday to protest the newly remodeled Wal-Mart. Unionists, elected officials, clergy and community members came to support Wal-Mart workers' demands for respect and better working conditions.
A few Wal-Mart workers had joined the OUR Walmart campaign and have been organizing for the past several months. But many of the workers at the protest had simply become fed up with the constant disrespect by management.
"Some of the managers made racial comments to other workers," said Mario Hammond, who was recently fired from Wal-Mart. "I've gotten death threats. When it's time to speak out, it's time to speak out."
Another worker who endured a death threat was Markeith Washington, who is on the remodeling crew. In late September, one of the store managers told Washington, who is Black, that he would put a rope around his neck. The manager then tried to pass off the comment as a joke.
To protest the ongoing abuse by management, Washington and five others staged a sit-in at a store entrances during the grand re-opening on November 6. "We demanded to be treated with respect," stated Washington. "I want to be treated like an adult. If people work hard they should not let people push them around."
A few days later, many of the participants at the sit-in were terminated.
At the Black Friday picket, protesters demanded that management reinstate the fired workers. A delegation tried to enter the store to speak to managers–when the entire picket tried to follow them in, the doors were slammed shut.
The showing and the spirit of the picket was invigorating. "We're going to keep fighting," said Pam Davis, who has worked at the Richmond store for nearly two years. "I'm not in a union right now, but if I ever get a chance, I'll join one, even if I have to pay dues, because we should not be treated this way."
— In Dallas, another hub of action against Wal-Mart in recent weeks, the Black Friday protests started on Thursday evening, when about 60 members and supporters of OUR Walmart met at the Hampton Inn in Desoto for a Thanksgiving buffet and then loaded onto a large bus for a roving picket.
The first stop was at the Lancaster store, where organizers were hesitant to hold a picket because management and police threatened arrests at a protest earlier in the month. The group gathered in a circle for a prayer vigil. As one OUR Walmart said, "This isn't just for us, but for everyone struggling across the country."
At a second store in Balch Springs, outside of Dallas, the bus pulled up as close to the Wal-Mart as possible. The plan was to picket and have workers–six of whom were on strike at the store–present their demands to managers before we were kicked off the property. The picket was spirited, with lots of chanting and waving signs, and it received support from enthusiastic passersby.
Protesters loaded onto a bus and headed for a final store that night in South Dallas on Wheatland Road. Activists marched into the parking lot, chanting and with arms linked. We were intercepted about three-quarters of the way across the lot by management and police, so we immediately launched into our prepared speech, given via mic check. Police tried to encourage us to move back, but they were outnumbered.
The next morning, more than 110 people arrived at the Hampton Inn for the day's events. The diversity of organizations present was impressive, including representatives from the United Auto Workers and the Labor Council for Latin American Advancement.
We split into two groups. One bus went to a store in Fort Worth off Airport Road. Only one worker, Billy, walked out at this store. "Originally, we had 21 people at the store planning to strike," Billy said. "But the management harassment and intimidation was so high, that it ended up just being me."
Billy said he was there because workers "get no respect." He said the final straw was when he asked a manager for some change for his drawer. "After a few minutes, they came up and threw a handful of change at my back," he said. "They said, 'here's your change.'"
The other bus went to the Balch Springs store. We quickly decided to march off the sidewalk and directly into the parking lot. The chanting was extremely loud as we approached the group of managers and police officers waiting at the front of the store. Everyone stopped to listen to the message delivered to management, and then we continued a sidewalk picket.
The final stop brought both of the buses together again at the Lancaster store. We unloaded the buses about a block away and marched to the busy store, where we attracted the attention of dozens of customers, who responded with some smiles and even chanting along.
— In Portland, Ore., more than 200 protesters lined 82nd Avenue outside one of the city's few Wal-Marts on Black Friday. The rally was held with the support of activists from many local unions, Jobs with Justice, Occupy and local politicians.
One protester who lived a few blocks away cited her neighbor's foreclosure as the reason for attending. She said that with four small children, her neighbor, a Wal-Mart manager, didn't make enough to pay his mortgage and was evicted at Christmas a few years ago. Now she is active in the anti-foreclosure movement.
The action brought together other local Black Friday traditions, like the anti-corporate Buy Nothing campaign and proponents of buying local from the many independent artisans and fairs for which Portland is well-known. Organizers united to support the workers who are attempting to improve their conditions.
— In Madison, Wis., on the coldest, snowiest day so far this year, about 150 people attended a morning Black Friday demonstration outside the East Side Wal-Mart Supercenter. Organized by the Interfaith Coalition for Workers Justice and South Central Federation of Labor, the rally saw a broad turnout of union members from Madison Teachers Inc., AFSCME, UFCW and SEIU.
At the end of the rally, protesters marched into the store to present management with a letter outlining our complaints against unfair labor practices and poverty wages.
— In Salem, Mass., northeast of Boston, about 50 union workers and community members gathered at the Wal-Mart to show their support for workers taking action on Black Friday.
"It's not just about union, it's about workers," said Terry Canavan from UAW Local 2324. "It's about workers' rights, whether they're union or not-union…I think it's outrageous that rather than giving their workers respect and wage increases when all of this came to the surface, Wal-Mart went to file anti-protest [injunctions] and try to stifle their workers."
Tony Toledo, former member of Teamsters Local 20, agreed. "Those great prices come at a great cost," he said. "In Massachusetts, if somebody's making a full-time job at $15,000 a year, you're not going to live on that. I mean, you can't live under a bridge for that. And yet, these are the very people who keep the doors open and stock the store."
Earlier, a smaller contingent of community members entered the store to hand workers thank-you cards from OUR Walmart and talk with them about organizing. Even though the Black Friday rush had calmed down, the store was still full of hired security and police who patrolled the aisles. Managers hovered near overworked "associates."
The injunctions, the harassment, the surveillance on and off the job–all are designed to stifle worker organizing. Moving forward, community support is going to be crucial. "This is to let the workers here know that whatever Wal-Mart does to them, the community of Salem's going to stand up with them," said Ben Winthrop, Salem resident. "Salem is a union town, and Wal-Mart needs to damn well remember it."
— In Philadelphia, there were pickets at all three Wal-Mart locations on Black Friday. At the Aramingo Avenue store, activists met beforehand and then arrived individually at the Wal-Mart so as not to attract attention. When we reached about 40 or 50 people inside, we began marching around the store and chanting, while handing out leaflets to customers.
Two Wal-Mart workers walked off the job at this store. One of them, Tony Zollo, one of the main organizers of the day's protests, was fired on the spot during the demonstration. One of his managers came outside the store and fired him in front of everybody. "One of the managers came out to oversee our protest, that we weren't hurting company property or whatever," Zollo said. "I asked him if I could return to work because I just wanted to walk off to send a message, and he said absolutely not, you don't have a job here anymore."
— In Connecticut, protesters held demonstrations at four Wal-Mart locations: Danbury, Waterbury, Hartford and Milford.
The Milford demonstration was organized in part by 1199/SEIU, which represents health care workers who have been locked out since the summer by management at the West River Health Care Center, owned by Healthbridge. About 25 protesters including teachers, environmental justice activists and members of 1199 picketed and handed out leaflets detailing Wal-Mart's unfair labor practices.
"Walmart systematically impacts communities by lowering wages and by providing poor jobs to communities," said union organizer Jesse Martin. "As union workers who literally work in this town and are fighting for good wages and to take care of our families, a company like Wal-Mart undermines that struggle."
— In Lakewood, Colo., outside Denver, more than 200 people assembled to show solidarity with Wal-Mart workers. Representatives from many unions were present, including UFCW Local 7, Service Employees International Union, the Teamsters and the American Federation of Teachers.
Our steady marching and chants of solidarity turned away some potential shoppers and elicited complaints from the many managers standing in front of the doors to prevent demonstrators from entering. After the protest began to wrap up, activists were asked to take packets containing flyers, stickers and a letter to corporate management to various Wal-Mart locations.
— In Providence, R.I., more than 60 people, carrying signs reading "Bust Wal-Mart, Not Unions" and "Wal-Mart Associates Deserve A Living Wage," marched into a store on Black Friday. Using the mic check tactic popularized by Occupy Wall Street, protesters announced their support for striking workers and decried the corporation's unfair labor practices, repression of labor organizers and role in driving down wages.
The protesters had a letter in support of workers to deliver to management, but supervisors refused to accept it. After being forced to leave the store by Providence police, activists resumed their protest at the edge of the parking lot, where passing shoppers honked and applauded in support.

— In Atlanta, over 60 protesters picketed the Howell Mill Wal-Mart store on Black Friday, slowing traffic into the complex as they talked with customers about working conditions at Wal-Mart and management's retaliation against employees. Unions and community groups joined the protest, and sent a clear message that the people of Atlanta support Wal-Mart workers in their fight for justice.
— In San Diego, about 70 people gathered outside the College Center Wal-Mart on the morning of Black Friday for a rally, where they handed out stickers in support of workers and fliers with information about the strikes and the OUR Walmart campaign. One San Diego joined the walkout for the day.
People from the UFCW and OUR Walmart stood alongside unionists, as well as activists from the Occupy movement and the LGBT rights struggle. In contrast to a Black Friday action last year, this rally was, without a doubt, pro-worker and not anti-consumer. After the speeches, a dozen people went inside the store to do a mic check, but were escorted out when they started.
— Near Burlington, Vt., labor activists picketed two Wal-Marts on Thursday evening and Friday morning. Most shoppers had not heard of the Wal-Mart walkouts and Black Friday protests, but responded with great enthusiasm to signs declaring "Stand Up, Live Better" and "Wal-Mart Special: Two Jobs for the Price of One."
Meanwhile, Occupy Central Vermont organized a picket line and leafleted shoppers on the "High Cost of Low Prices" outside the Berlin (Montpelier/Barre) Wal-Mart. About 25 people total participated during the morning and afternoon picketing.
— In Scarborough, Maine, 25 people performed a flash mob and held an informational picket in solidarity with Wal-Mart workers nationally. The flash mob was a song and dance routine to the tune of Kesha's "Tic-Toc," which attracted the attention of workers and customers alike. Tony Zeli, an organizer with the Southern Maine Workers' Center, felt the day was a tremendous success: "Customers will be more aware of how Wal-Mart treats people and will maybe think twice before they shop with them again, and workers saw solidarity–now they know that we have their back."
The action was also successful in connecting organizations and individuals concerned about workers' rights in Southern Maine.
— In Tacoma, Wash., protesters entered a Wal-Mart store on Black Friday for an action, and then protested outside for several hours. Dave Zink, a recently laid-off state worker, explained why he joined the protest: "We need to stop this global spiral to the bottom. Workers everywhere aren't safe when workers anywhere have been screwed."
Phil Aliff, Adam Balogh, Michael Brown, Miguel Angel Castaneda, Elizabeth Clinton, Jonathan Cunningham, Joseph Greenwood, Meg Hargis, Owen Hill, Robin Horne, Brian Huseby, Robert Jay, Natalie Johnson, Marilena Marchetti, Eric Maroney, Chris Mastrangelo, Chris Morrill, John Osmand, Ben Ratliffe, Mer Reese, Gillian Russom, Michael Stiles, Alessandro Tinonga and Nancy Welch contributed to this article.

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