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Walmart Strikes Fire Up Low-Wage Workers, Despite Setbacks

Although they were unable to put a dent in Black Friday sales, striking Walmart workers raised the issues faced by low-wage workers to the forefront of the national conversation. Their action has already inspired historic protests by fast-food workers in New York City.

Walmart workers-neontommy-555.jpg

Photo by Neon Tommy.

With the Black Friday strikes at Walmart behind us, and a few days to reflect on the outcome, the big conclusion we can draw is that the workers got lukewarm results in the streets (or parking lots, as the case may be), but scored a major victory in the media, especially in social media. That momentum could go a long way for the struggles of low-wage workers across the country.

On Black Friday, the largest shopping day of the year in the United States, Walmart workers, their families, and supporters staged 1,000 protests and demonstrations in 46 states and in 100 major cities, according to OUR Walmart, a non-union worker’s organization associated with the strike. Only four states—Utah, Delaware, Wyoming, and Idaho—reported no strikes or protests.

Many of the workers and supporters who protested were affiliated with two organizations: OUR Walmart and Making Change at Walmart.

In a video posted to YouTube on October 23 by OUR Walmart, workers cite a laundry list of reasons for the strike, including low wages, unfair scheduling, and retaliation against workers who attempt to organize.

Amos said she had made the decision to go on strike after her store manager ignored concerns that she and other associates expressed.

Actions took different forms in different cities, with tactics ranging from walkouts to picket lines. In Milwaukee, Wis., striking workers briefly occupied the front register area of Walmart store number 2452. On Twitter, @Wiscjobsnow tweeted pictures of the occupation. In Chicago, two dozen Walmart employees joined with other retail and fast-food workers for a series of protests in Chicago’s downtown. And individual workers walked off their jobs in places like Danville, Ky., Orlando, Fla., Ocean City, Md., and Baton Rouge, La.

In Mt. Vernon, Wash., Lori Amos, who has worked for Walmart for 13 years, walked out with one other co-worker. Other workers joined them on breaks from their shifts. Over 100 community supporters turned out on behalf of the striking workers and their colleagues. Speaking by phone, Amos said she had made the decision to go on strike after her store manager ignored concerns that she and other associates expressed.

Amos, along with other OUR Walmart members and supporters, originally went on strike back in October, and took their grievances all the way to Walmart headquarters in Bentonville, Ark. “A main focus of our going on strike was our fear of retaliation,” she said, “to show them that we won’t stand for retaliation.”

Amos expressed gratitude for local residents who came out to support striking workers. “I felt so empowered by the community people and the support that we had,” she said. “I really didn’t have any fear about going back to work on Saturday and clocking in for my regular shift.”

In Connecticut, about 60 supporters of the strike held a solidarity rally at the Walmart on Flatbush Avenue in Hartford. No Walmart employees walked off the job or participated in the rally.

A view from behind the shopping cart

At the nearby store in Manchester, Conn., it was business as usual for Walmart employees and Black Friday shoppers. Inside the store, every register was open. Outside, in the chilly parking lot, a pair of Walmart employees hurried to collect scattered shopping carts as shoppers rushed from their cars to the store, and rushed out again with bags and carts full of merchandise.

The holiday shoppers that were willing to speak with a reporter said they were supportive of the strike as long as it didn’t interrupt their shopping plans.

A social worker, who asked that his name not be published, said he was shopping for appliances for his new apartment in Boston.

“They should get double-time for working on a holiday,” one shopper said.

“I know that Walmart is horrible with the labor laws and how they treat their employees,” he said, when asked for his thoughts about the strike.

He added that he hoped the strike would lead to wage increases for Walmart workers. Other shoppers agreed. “They should get double-time for working on a holiday,” said John Magowan, a Connecticut resident shopping for gifts for his family.

A victory in cyberspace

Walmart’s official representatives have downplayed the size and effectiveness of the strikes. In an emailed statement, David Tovar, the company’s Vice President of Corporate Communications, called the number of protests being reported “grossly exaggerated.”

Guestworkers Peeling Crawfish photo courtesy of the Natinal Guestworker Alliance
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“The number of associates that have missed their scheduled shift today is more than 60 percent less than Black Friday last year,” he added.

That comparison may be missing the point, however. Even if attendance was better than last year’s, the strikes managed to raise the issue of Walmart’s labor issues to the top of the national conversation.

Social media was abuzz Friday with discussion of the strike and the hashtag #walmartstrikers was the most frequently discussed one on Twitter that morning. MSNBC, The Nation, Democracy Now, In These Times, and scores of local media have all run coverage of the events. Fox News focused on Walmart’s legal claims against its workers, and John Stewart’s Daily Show responded with a blistering segment that connected the issues faced by American workers to the deaths of workers at a Walmart supplier in Bangladesh.

These and other stories brought the plight of low-wage workers to the forefront of the public consciousness, and it doesn’t end with Walmart. In Chicago, it was clear that workers throughout the retail sector shared the same issues, and the scope of the public dialogue will soon include other job sectors as well. The New York Times reported on Wednesday that fast-food workers in New York City are gearing up for the largest unionizing effort for fast food workers ever undertaken in the United States.

The success of the Walmart strikes in capturing public sympathy seems likely to embolden their allies in the fast-food sector as their campaign gets under way.

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Paul J. Comeau wrote this article for YES! Magazine,  a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas with practical actions. Paul is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in Monthly Review, Razorcake, Knee-Jerk, and other publications. He can be reached via email at pauljcomeau [at] gmail [dot] com. Follow him on Twitter at @comeaupaulj.

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