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'Black Friday' Strikes Mark Start of Walmart Workers Fight

Demand for living wage and human dignity will not be thwarted

- Common Dreams staff

In what critics see as an insatiable and rapacious strategy to lure deal-hungry consumers, many of the nation's largest big box retailers opened their doors Thursday night in efforts to extend the available hours for the national shopping glut known as "Black Friday".

For some, however, the cultish behavior that has come to surround the start of the holiday shopping season has become an opportunity to voice opposition to the way retail behemoths conduct their business and treat their workers. Walmart workers, in particular, are using this day to highlight their ongoing and unprecedented campaign against the world's largest retailer, asking for better wages, improved working conditions, and demanding owners to respect their call for human dignity.

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OUR Walmart -- the group of current and former employees spearheading the movement -- is leading strikes and demonstrations at nearly 1,000 stores in states across the country on Friday and Saturday.

Despite efforts by Walmart to downplay the turnout of specific protests, organizers say they've received enormous support from around the country and view their efforts this week to take on the powerful corporation as a beginning, not an end, to their struggle.

The Los Angeles Times reports:

Richard Reynoso, 19, of Baldwin Park, walked out of his shift a half-hour early to join the protests. He picked up a megaphone and led supporters from the United Food and Commercial Workers union in a series of chants.

"Who's got the power?" Reynoso shouted.

"We got the power," the crowd responded.

"What kind of power?"

"People power!"

In the year he's been working at Wal-Mart, managers have increased their demands and done little to improve working conditions, Reynoso said. Since joining OUR Wal-Mart, he said he's worked fewer hours.

"They don't treat us with the respect we deserve," Reynoso said. "They think we're robots."

George Woodley, a 63-year-old Wal-Mart cashier, was also outside. He is a few years away from retirement, and wants to fight for current and future employees, he said.

"I know times are tough and people need jobs," Woodley said. "But the question is, what kind of jobs are we getting?"

And added this video of a 19 year old Walmart employee talking about why he joined the strike:

As the Toronto Sun reports:

In Chicago, four busloads of protesters, including some Walmart workers, showed up at a store on the city’s South Side for a 7 a.m. protest. The crowd chanted “Walmart, Walmart you’re no good, treat your workers like you should!” though their activities did not appear to deter shoppers.

The Guardian adds:

The actions began Thursday, as workers protested the retail giant's decision to open on Thanksgiving, which is traditionally a national holiday. Industrial action continued Friday, with organizers claiming 1,000 protests in 46 states.

Walmart workers in Miami, Dallas, Wisconsin, California's Bay Area, Chicago and Washington DC took part in the walk out, protesting wages and work conditions. The demonstrations were co-ordinated by OUR Walmart, a workers' group that last month led the first strikes that the retail giant had experienced. [...]

"Walmart has spent the last 50 years pushing its way on workers and communities," said Mary Pat Tifft, an OUR Walmart member and 24-year associate who led a protest on Thursday evening in Kenosha, Wisconsin. "In just one year, leaders of OUR Walmart and Warehouse Workers United have begun to prove that change is coming to the world's largest employer."

"Our voices are being heard," said Colby Harris, an OUR Walmart member and three-year associate who walked off the job in Lancaster, Texas, on Thursday evening. "And thousands of people in our cities and towns and all across the country are joining our calls for change at Walmart. We are overwhelmed by the support and proud of what we've achieved so quickly and about where we are headed."

As Huffington Post's Alice Hines put it: "the protests aimed at Walmart on what is traditionally the busiest shopping day of the year may constitute a test of the nation's sympathy for low-wage workers -- many of whom earn so little that they qualify for food stamps -- against the powerful American yearning for a great deal."

The question then, is will consumers who behave like this (outside Victoria's Secret at the Woodland Hills Mall in Tulsa, Oklahoma on Friday):

Be responsive to a campaign that has this to say?:

Ultimately, however, there may no be tension between the workers' demands for better compensation and treatment and the desire for consumers more broadly to enjoy a thriving economic environment.

As a new report by the non-partisan think tank Demos points out: "The continued dominance of low wages in this sector weakens our nation’s capacity to boost living standards and economic growth. Retail’s low-wage employment means that even Americans who work full-time fail to make ends meet, and growth slows because too few families have enough remaining in each paycheck to contribute to the broader economy."

The study found that by increasing the purchasing power of low-wage workers like those at Walmart and other major retailers, $4 to $5 billion in additional annual sales could be generated for the retail sector.

Such analysis does little to address the noxious scenes of shopper-pandemonium that take place annually on Black Friday, but at least the workers on the receiving end could receive a more equitable share of the profits generated.

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