Occupy Walmart: Workers Plan Black Friday Protests

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The Nation

Occupy Walmart: Workers Plan Black Friday Protests

Walmart workers are planning to mark Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving and one of the biggest shopping days of the year, with pickets outside of stores and warehouses across the country.

Former and current employees of the giant corporation describe systemic abuse and harassment by management at Walmart stores and warehouses. When asked about their demands, many workers talk about the desire for management to respect and listen to the workers. Our Walmart, a protest group seeking justice and accountability from Walmart, also wants to see the minimum wage raised to $13/hour and for full-time jobs to be made available to Associates who want them. Other demands include a dependable, predictable work schedule, affordable healthcare, no discrimination, and wages that ensure no Associate has to rely on government assistance to survive.

Walmart is one of the biggest recipients of government subsidies, receiving tax breaks, free land, cash grants and other forms of public assistance, in addition to paying some of its workers so little that they too turn to the federal government for programs like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).

However, even Walmart employees who make better wages complain about abuse on the job. An employee at a Walmart distribution center in Gas City, Indiana initially decided to work at the big box chain because his job pays almost $20 an hour, and he couldn't find another job that paid that well in his area. The worker, who asked to remain anonymous because he's afraid of being fired for going public with his complaints, says that Walmart has the attitude that because they pay workers well the employees are "required to be their slaves."

His job is to load heavy boxes, sometimes up to seventy pounds, onto pallets stacked six feet tall in a freezer that has a temperature of -20 degrees. He is also given very short time limits for each pallet to be completed, so he normally ends up running down aisles with heavy boxes to make his rate.

One day, he cut a fairly large gash in his leg by scraping one of the wooden pallets and his leg started bleeding. When he asked his manager for a bandage, he was told that if his manager gave him one, they'd have to write him up for not being careful enough on the job. Instead, he worked all day with an open wound because he was afraid that one more write up could get him fired.

This is part of a system of harassment and intimidation. The worker goes on to explain that Walmart is notorious for telling employees they will be fired upon their first utterance of the word "union," and they are encouraged to not report on-the-job injuries. If the equipment breaks while they're using it, regardless of the cause, the employees will be written up. There are four categories of write ups, and once they get written up four times, they are automatically fired with no questions asked.

Dan Hindman has worked at a Walmart near Los Angeles for four years. The former employee of the month, who makes $9.80 an hour, told CBS News that even though he is scheduled to work on Black Friday, he doesn't plan to show up.

"Walmart needs to learn that it's not fair how they treat us," Hindman says.

"We don't want to walk out on Black Friday. We don't want to do this. It's just something we have to do, because it's the right thing to do," Hindman says. 

He says his schedule was cut to 15 hours per week when he joined a group of Walmart employees who favor unionizing. He lost custody of his four-year-old son when he could no longer support him. 

"So I lost my son and I'm kind of regretting working for Walmart, but I have to provide, you know?" says an emotional Hindman. "It's the biggest retailer in the world, and you can't help me provide for my son? It kills me, dude. It really tears me apart, big time."

In order to show solidarity with Walmart workers, the Occupy movement has organized a series of grassroots events across the country. A coalition, including Occupy Wall Street, 99 Pickets, ALIGN, Rev. Billy and the Church of Stop Shopping, Retail Action Project, and other allies will occupy a Walmart store in North Jersey in solidarity with the workers. 

But the event is in no way limited to the New York-New Jersey region, and other Occupy chapters are also planning actions. Nick Espinosa from Occupy Minnesota says protesters in Minneapolis are working with Centro de Trabajadores Unidos en Lucha (CTLU), in addition to other community organizations and labor groups, to support local Walmart workers who are going out on strike.

"Occupy is serving as a hub to connect people to where workers are standing up and speaking out in ways that they can support them," says Espinosa. 

"Occupy serves as a hub for people from all walks of life to start a dialogue, and as we started a conversation with people, we found many people are obviously  having similar problems at work, from layoffs to low wages, and in Walmart's case, you don't have to go far to make the connection between Walmart and Wall Street. They're the world's largest employer and they're the quintessential one percent corporation," Espinosa continues, citing Walmart's penchant for subcontracting as a way to "absolve themselves for the abuses of their workers that goes on all along the supply chain, from the stores to their factories where the products are being packed. It goes from here to China."

Upon visiting a Walmart store in Mexico, Espinosa says he saw youth who were bagging groceries there for no wages - only tips. 

"They're outsourcing abuse of workers all over the world and doing everything they can to create a smokescreen between their brand and the actual abuses that are allowing them to skim profits from working people to pad the CEO's profits."

While Espinosa doesn't claim Occupy inspired the recent string of Walmart strikes and walkouts, he does credit the movement for raising awareness about the issues of class and labor abuses.

"Occupy was a shot across the bow to the one percent and corporate rule. When it comes to workers' rights, I think it's been a wakeup call to workers and some of the larger unions that if we don't start fighting, we really have no hope for a better future. Right now, even with President Obama post-election, we're looking at nothing but cuts and austerity, so I think people are taking a cue from Occupy and from movements all over the world. People are seeing what's happening in Spain, in Greece, right now with the general strikes and seeing that as the real way forward to protecting workers' rights and creating real opportunities that don't involve balancing the budgets on the backs of working families and the most vulnerable in our society."

In response, Walmart has filed a National Labor Relations Board charge alleging that the pickets are illegal and asking for a judge to shut them down, while simultaneously claiming the strike involves only a "handful of associates, at a handful of stores scattered across the country that are participating in these…made for-TV events."

Janna Pea, a spokeswoman for one of the workers' groups, says she expect some 1,000 of the roughly 4,000 chain stores to be hit with walkouts.

I'll be live-tweeting from some of the Black Friday protests. Follow me at @allisonkilkenny.

Allison Kilkenny

Allison Kilkenny is the co-host of the progressive political podcast Citizen Radio (wearecitizenradio.com) and independent journalist who blogs at allisonkilkenny.com. Her work has appeared in The American Prospect, the L.A. Times, In These Times, Common Dreams, Truthout and the award-winning grassroots NYC newspaper The Indypendent.

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