'Black Friday' Civil Disobedience Targets Walmart's Poverty Wages
Santa Claus among the first arrested in day of action against retail giant's business model of misery
Update (8:12 PM EST):
A day of protests at well over a thousand locations nationwide saw huge numbers of pro-worker activists and Walmart employees themselves protesting against the retail giant's notoriously low wages and flagrant disregard for their employees' well-being.
As Salon.com's Josh Eidelson reports:
Organizers say 111 people were arrested in eight Black Friday civil disobedience actions against Wal-Mart, with more arrests expected at a ninth and final such demonstration now underway in San Leandro, California. Those actions are among 1,500 total protests promised for today by the union-backed group OUR Walmart, which last year said it mobilized 400-some Wal-Mart employees to strike.
“Wal-Mart workers and community supporters, we refuse to live in fear and refuse to accept scraps,” employee Martha Sellers told reporters on a mid-day call. She was joined by arrestee Betty Shove, who said she’d been “harassed” for OUR Walmart activism, and was “standing up for every member that cannot, that will not, because they’re too afraid to lose their job.”
In May, as workers kicked off a several-day strike and caravan to Wal-Mart’s shareholder meeting which was followed by the firing of twenty-three participants, United Food & Commercial Workers strategist Dan Schlademan told me, “we’re certainly going to prove it’s growing this year.” But as I suggested this morning, how today’s Black Friday activism compares to last year’s depends on how you count. While strikes were the centerpiece of Black Friday 2012, this year the campaign focused on civil disobedience actions, which involved a mix of current Wal-Mart employees, fired workers, and other supporters. OUR Walmart said it hit its goal of holding at least 1,500 protests, and that those involved tens of thousands of people, but said it did not yet have a count of how many Wal-Mart employees were involved. In a September statement, the campaign pledged “widespread, massive strikes and protests for Black Friday.”
In a Friday evening statement, Wal-Mart said, “In reality, we counted fewer than 20 current associates participating in events.” Asked about that claim, a spokesperson for the UFCW’s Making Change at Walmart campaign e-mailed, “That’s laughable and it is disrespectful to workers and supporters who are raising real concerns about low wages at Walmart. Walmart workers have been striking all month and were out protesting across the country today.”
At a protest outside a Walmart store in Ontario, California on Friday morning, a group of worker advocates, including a man dressed as Santa Claus, were arrested for blocking traffic as they demanded attention for the plight of Walmart employees, store contractors, and their families.
With as a many as 1,500 separate protests planned for Walmart locations on the day known as "Black Friday," workers for the retail giant and supporters of their cause to win better treatment and increased wages are using the year's busiest shopping day to draw attention to the growing movement of low-wage workers rising up against poverty and disrespect in the workplace.
Under the hashtag #walmartstrikers, Twitter users are tracking updates and posting photos from actions across the country:
Among the journalists who have most closely followed the growth of the Walmart workers movement led by the group OUR Walmart (@forrespect), Salon.com's Josh Eidelson (@josheidelson) and The Nation's Allison Kilkenny (@allisonkilkenny)were live-tweeting the day's unfolding events:
As Eidelson reported Friday:
Defying the nation’s top employer and a business model that defines the new U.S. economy, Wal-Mart employees and allies will try to oust shopping headlines with strike stories, and throw a retail giant off its heels on what should be its happiest day of the year. By day’s end, organizers expect 1,500 total protests in cities ranging from Los Angeles, Calif., to Wasilla, Alaska, including arrests in nine cities: Seacaucus, New Jersey; Alexandria, Virginia; Dallas; Minneapolis; Chicago; Seattle; and Ontario, San Leandro, and Sacramento, California.
“Like my mom always said, ‘You see something that’s not right, it’s your turn to fix it,” said 45-year-old Chicago Wal-Mart employee Myron Byrd, who plans to be arrested in his first act of civil disobedience today. “And you can’t do it by yourself — you have to do it with others.” Byrd said he was driven to action by “high school”-level pay and workplace disrespect, and inspired by the courage of fellow workers and his mother’s civil rights legacy. “I’m sacrificing myself, along with others, to do this,” he told me, “to show Wal-Mart that hey, I’m not afraid, they not afraid, we not afraid.” In an e-mail to reporters, Wal-Mart spokesperson David Tovar said that “planned arrests” were “just another way to make these orchestrated events seem newsworthy,” and that “these aren’t real protests by real Walmart associates.”
Whether today’s action is bigger than last year’s “Black Friday” showdown remains to be seen, and likely depends on how you count: Would more protests, and more protesters, make up for a retaliation-fueled reduction in the number of Wal-Mart employees who go on strike to join them?