Wal-Mart Plays Down Labor Protests at Its Stores

Wal-Mart faced not only a throng of shoppers on Black Friday but what a union-backed group said was the biggest wave of protests that the retailer had ever seen, a contention the company disputed.

The group, OUR Walmart, said there were protests at 1,000 stores in 46 states, ranging from a couple of community supporters’ asking to talk with store managers about raising wages to raucous demonstrations in the Los Angeles, New York and Washington areas that each attracted hundreds of people.

In Quincy, Mass., two dozen workers and their supporters demonstrated during the night, projecting a message on the store’s outside walls that read, “Massachusetts Supports Walmart Workers Rights.” More than 1,000 people — employees, community supporters and members of the clergy — rallied outside the Walmart in Paramount, Calif.; nine were arrested after blocking a nearby street.

OUR Walmart — its formal name is Organization United for Respect at Walmart — claims several thousand store employees as members and said hundreds of them did not report to work Friday in what the group said was a strike.

“In its 50-year history, Wal-Mart has never seen strikes like those we’re seeing today,” said Lynsey Kryzwick, a spokeswoman for OUR Walmart, which works closely with the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union. “It will be hard for Wal-Mart to ignore all these workers and their allies calling for change at Wal-Mart.”

Wal-Mart sought to play down the protests, saying they were largely a made-for-TV event and had hardly affected the company on what it said was its best Black Friday.

“The number of protests being reported by the U.F.C.W. are grossly exaggerated,” said David Tovar, a Wal-Mart spokesman. “We are aware of a few dozen protests at our stores today.” OUR Walmart said that in Massachusetts alone there were protests at four dozen Walmarts.

The retailer said that some demonstrators had been bused from one store to another. Mr. Tovar said that the protesters represented a fraction of the company’s 1.4 million United States employees.

Last week, Wal-Mart asked the National Labor Relations Board for an injunction against the protests, which have occurred sporadically for weeks. Wal-Mart said they violated a federal law that bars unions from picketing for more than 30 days when seeking union recognition.

Nancy Cleeland, the spokeswoman for the labor board, said on Friday that it was not ready to issue an announcement.

OUR Walmart said the protests were aimed at fighting retaliation and not at gaining union recognition. The group filed its own complaint with the labor board, saying that Wal-Mart had violated federal laws against intimidating workers who seek to strike or otherwise protest by saying there could be consequences — in the form of dismissals, demotions or reduction in work hours.

“A lot of people are fearful of retaliation,” said Colby Harris, a three-year Walmart employee in Lancaster, Tex. “A lot of allies have come and spoken up and that’s given the workers a lot of confidence.”

Mr. Tovar said the company did not retaliate and was always ready to hear employees’ concerns. He added, “The large majority of protesters aren’t even Walmart workers.” He said the number of employees who missed their scheduled shifts on Friday was 60 percent lower than Black Friday last year.

The company said it was providing employees who worked their scheduled Black Friday shift a special 10 percent discount off Walmart purchases.

Dan Schlademan, one of the protests’ main organizers and the director of Making Change at Walmart, an arm of the food and commercial workers union, said it was hard to determine how many protests there were nationwide. He said OUR Walmart had commitments from employees and community supporters to stage some type of action at more than 1,000 stores.

“This is open-source striking,” Mr. Schlademan said. “It’s going to take some time to know exactly what’s happening.”

He acknowledged that most of the demonstrators were not store employees but community allies, saying they shared the protesting workers’ goal of pressing the company to improve wages and halt any retaliation.

On a conference call organized by OUR Walmart, Eric Lee, president of the Los Angeles chapter of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, pledged his group’s support for the effort, not just on Black Friday but in the coming months.

“What’s most inspiring is that we find the workers are standing up themselves for respect,” he said. “They have the support of our entire community.”


Categories: Economy, Labor, U.S. News, Workers Struggle

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