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Historic Walmart Strikes Hit 100 Cities (Final Update: 9:20 PM) | The Nation

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Josh Eidelson

Josh Eidelson

Labor in the Walmart economy.

Historic Walmart Strikes Hit 100 Cities (Final Update: 9:20 PM)


Demonstrators protest Wal-Mart in Boynton Beach, Florida, Friday, November 23, 2012. (AP Photo/J Pat Carter)

Check this space for updates throughout the day, and please send tips to jeidelson at gmail dot com.

9:15 pm: San Leandro workers, and the “brass liberation band” accompanying them, were blocked by police when they attempted to enter their store for a flash mob. San Leandro’s was the last major demonstration of tonight. The three workers who were arrested for civil disobedience this afternoon have returned home. The Corporate Action Network has posted a map of many of the day’s protests. This is the final live blog post of the night—thanks to all who offered tips. I’ll have a wrap-up post up later. Tomorrow, the Walmart strikers are headed back to work, with at least one exception: a San Leandro worker who wanted to strike but was scheduled for days off on Thursday and Friday, She’ll be striking tomorrow.

7:05 pm: San Leandro, California, workers just launched a picket line outside their store. Striker Dominic Ware told The Nation he was scared to go on strike, but he was more scared for “future inviduals who come [to Walmart] looking for a better environment and looking for an opportunity to better their lives, and get slapped in the face like I did.” He said he was driven to strike by unfair discipline and poor management.

The picket line will include a “brass liberation band” and a dragon puppet. Ware said that fifty or sixty supporters had already arrived fifteen minutes early. As for San Leandro retail workers on strike, he said, “So far there’s only two, but there’s supposed to be another brother” on his way. “A lot of people get cold feet at the last minute but that’s OK.” Ware said that the most common reason for workers not striking is “being told that they’ll be fired if they participate.”

“It’s amazing, it’s really amazing,” said Ware, “to see all of the people that were brave enough to go on strike” and “the community support…. it just touched me in so many ways that I really haven’t taken it all in.” After today, said Ware, “I hope I wouldn’t have to strike anymore. But as long as they keep playing and they don’t fix anything, I’m going to keep doing what I need to do to get their attention.”

“It’s just beautiful, man,” said Ware. “We’re winning. No matter what Walmart says, we’re winning.”

6:30 pm: Congressman George Miller, the ranking Democrat on the House Education and Labor Committee and a longtime union ally, spoke at an event with striking Walmart workers in California today. That’s noteworthy because most federal Democratic officeholders have so far been silent on the historic strikes against the nation’s largest employer (Miller’s future colleague, Congressman-elect Alan Grayson, rallied with strikers in Florida today). The White House still has not responded to The Nation’s request for comment Tuesday regarding the strikes. Walmart critics have received support from some local politicians in cities like Los Angeles and New York where the company’s expansion is hotly contested.

Last week, I asked Making Change at Walmart Director Dan Schlademan whether the campaign expected support from politicians this week, he said that it would welcome it but wasn’t actively seeking it, and suggested that could be on the agenda for 2013. The last UFCW-backed Walmart group, Wake Up Walmart, was able to get Democratic presidential candidates, including then-Senator Obama, to express public criticisms of the company in 2008. But absent the ability to mobilize workers for actions like today’s, that proved less potent than organizers may have hoped.

5:10 pm: Paramount, California striker Maria Elena Jefferson told The Nation this afternoon’s mass rally was “very emotional. Very big. We were hoping that there would be a lot of people from the city supporting us, and we thought there would be supporters from other stores, and every time I looked around, it was bigger than bigger.” (Jefferson was interviewed in a mix of English and Spanish.) She said that the willingness of three workers to get arrested sent an important signal to management that workers are “willing to take the risk” and “what we’re doing is right.”

According to Make Change at Walmart, while standing in the middle of the street this afternoon, one of the three arrested workers, Charlene Fletcher, said, “We are serious about improving our jobs and ending retaliation at Walmart. No matter how hard we work for Walmart, my husband and I can’t catch up on our bills. But when our co-workers speak out about problems like these, Walmart turns their schedules upside down, cuts their hours and even fires people.”

Jefferson said she joined OUR Walmart because the company wouldn’t to provide enough hours for many workers to qualify for health insurance. She said some of her co-workers wouldn’t strike because “they think we’ll never win” and “they didn’t want to lose their jobs.” She said she hopes today will change their minds.

4:30 pm: While there’s no final count of how many workers walked off the job, organizers say one noteworthy trend is the number of places where a worker struck despite being the only one in their store to do so, often in stores with little or no prior OUR Walmart activism. One of those workers was Christopher Bentley Owen, whom I interviewed Tuesday about his experience in a mandatory “captive audience” meeting he said was designed to make workers fear they could lose their jobs if they joined the strike.

Owen said today that the sense that Walmart “wanted the managers to intimidate me” helped spur him to join OUR Walmart, and join the strike. On Tuesday, Owen had told me that he still had some hestitance about getting too involved because he didn’t plan on staying at Walmart for too long. But “the more and more I thought about it,” Owen said this afternoon, “that does seem to be one of the blocking points of people organizing in low-wage sectors: people thinking, well I can get a better job at some point. Millions of people are thinking that…meanwhile, there are millions of people in those jobs…at some point, people have to get together.”

Owen signed up with OUR Walmart on Wednesday online. Yesterday, two hours before his scheduled 5 pm shift, he called in and told a manager he was going on strike. Owen had considered also staging a one-person picket outside his store, but decided against it. “I was a little spooked,” he said, “because thirty-one off-duty police officers had been hired” along with “eight on-duty police” for Black Friday. OUR Walmart connected Owen with a leader in Tennessee, who put him in touch with a worker in Sapulpa, Oklahoma. Owen said that if he can find an action in his area today where he wouldn’t be alone, he’ll definitely take part.

3:30 pm: Civil disobedience is underway now in Paramount, outside Los Angeles, where organizers say 1,500 workers and supporters are demonstrating against retaliation. Nine people have been arrested for sitting in the street on Lakewood Boulevard, including three striking Walmart retail workers from area stores: Charlene Fletcher and William Fletcher from Duarte, and Martha Sellers from Paramount. (William Fletcher and I appeared on Democracy Now on Wednesday.)

This was the latest and largest of a series of Black Friday rallies in cities including Lancaster, Texas; San Leandro, California; Quincy, Massachusetts; Miami, Florida; and Hanover, Maryland. Organizers say they expect to exceed their promise of 1,000 total protests.

2:35 pm: According to a spokesperson for Making Change at Walmart, a group tied to the United Food & Commerical Workers union, hundreds of Walmart retail workers have now gone on strike. He added that there are Black Friday strikers in at least 100 cities and protests in forty-six states. The spokesperson accused Walmart of making up numbers to minimize the strike, and said that it will take time to tally more exact figures because many strikers are walking off the job on their own in stores that haven’t seen past OUR Walmart actions. He reiterated the group’s position that the strike is legally protected, and pledged support for any workers who face illegal retaliation for participating.

2:15 pm: In an 8:42 am statement, Walmart declared it had “reported its best ever Black Friday events,” including “larger crowds than last year and a huge response to its first-ever one-hour guarantee on key electronic items.” Walmart US President Bill Simon wrote that “Only 26 protests occurred at stores last night and many of them did not include any Walmart associates,” and offered an “estimate that less than 50 associates participated in the protest nationwide. In fact, this year, roughly the same number of associates missed their scheduled shift as last year.” The statement also touted Walmart’s 10 percent employee discount and “an additional 10 percent discount on an entire basket of goods” for workers who showed up on Black Friday.

12:30 pm: Hanover and Severn, MD—Four hundred–some activists, union members and striking Walmart workers marched down streets and through a shopping center parking lot this morning before being met by a Walmart manager, and police, across from Hanover, Maryland’s Capital Plaza Walmart at 10 this morning. Jobs With Justice Executive Director Sarita Gupta and local Reverend Edwin L. Jones Jr. asked the manager to commit not to punish the workers striking today; they say he replied that Walmart won’t retaliate, said it never does, and denied that national Vice President David Tovar’s comments that “there could be consequences” constituted a threat. Chants included “Whose Walmart? Our Walmart!,” “Hey hey, ho ho, slave wages have got to go,” and “Stand up! Live better!”

“Management disrespects us every day,” Laurel, Maryland, Walmart striker Cindy Murray told The Nation before speaking at the march. Murray, a twelve-year employee, said that her view of the company changed when managers refused to comply with the work restrictions her doctor had imposed due to a back injury. She said a manager took her into an office, threw an empty folder at her, and yelled, “You’re going to lift whatever I want.” When she responded that she could contact a lawyer, Murray said her manager accused her of making threats.

The Capital Plaza Walmart is the closest of six stores in the Washington, DC, suburbs; labor and progressives have so far been successful at keeping the store out of the city itself. Organizers said that 100 workers at those six stores have struck at least once this week; they said at least a dozen are on strike today, but some workers involved in unloading goods decided to participate in Monday’s strike instead to have more of an impact.

Following the Capital Plaza rally, striking workers and most protesters went to a Laurel, MD store to distribute leaflets and sing re-written Christmas carols (“I saw Walmart fire Santa Claus”; “Deck the aisles with living wages”; “May your days abound with strike talk, and may all your workers walk”) until asked to leave. One bus of community activists staged a more aggressive flash mob at a Severn, Maryland, store (check back for video). About fifty people walked quickly through the garden section, to the front of the store, and launched a mic check, the crowd echoing an organizer from Jobs with Justice as she read from a prepared script: “We call on Walmart to change. We call on Walmart to stop bullying. We are standing with those who have the courage to speak out.” After being warned by police who had already been on site, the group turned and left, chanting “We’ll be back.” This mic check followed others around the country, including three staged by a DC-area “Walmart Striking Party Bus” last night.

Most of this morning’s protesters arrived on a half dozen buses that departed from the nearby United Food & Commercial Workers Local 400 union hall. Felicia Miller, a UFCW member working at Safeway as a deli clerk, told The Nation that Walmart is driving down standards for new workers at her unionized store. “The young people coming in, pay stinks now because of Walmart,” said Miller. “The benefits package stinks because of Walmart…Because our companies are saying, if Walmart can get away with it, why can’t we?” She said the sight of Walmart workers on strike was “awesome. I’m here to support them all the way.”

Walmart striker Barbara Elliot said it was a scary decision: “It’s just nervous, it’s new what you’re doing, but you’re tired…. We’re doing it for other generations too.”

Murray was also active in a past UFCW-backed effort, Wake Up Walmart. She said that following Obama’s election, “I was like, we have to do something different.” Murray said OUR Walmart has had greater success because it “became an organization,” officially founded by 100 associates last year. Once workers saw it “as our organization…,” said Murray, “then I think associates finally said, maybe we can be saved. Maybe we can speak out.”

11:40 am: Hanover, MD—This morning I caught up with United Food & Commercial Workers union Organizing Director Pat O’Neill, who said the unprecedented strikes demonstrate “the courage of the workers,” and shows “they’ve reached the end of their rope.”

Interviewed as a 400-person march wound towards Maryland’s Capital Plaza Walmart (full report to follow), O’Neill said that “the bar” for today to be judged a success “is really just to spread the word, so all the Walmart associates know they’re not alone, that they are supported by the communities where they work.”

What happens after Black Friday? O’Neill, a key strategist in the OUR Walmart campaign, answered simply, “What the workers want is a dialogue with the company, and to let their voices be heard.”

I asked O’Neill whether, when today’s strikers return to work, retaliation from Walmart would get worse before it gets better. “I think that’s a real possibility,” he said. “I think that would be a mistake for Walmart to do that. I think the workers are showing that they’re not going to be silenced.”

8:35 am: Walmart responds: Keeping media out of stores on Black Friday “has been our practice for four or five years now.”

7:55 am: Is Walmart getting camera shy?

A media advisory sent out Monday invited local reporters in North Bergen, New Jerse to visit the local Walmart on Tuesday or Wednesday and see preparations for Black Friday. But the same advisory (shared with The Nation by a recipient) announced that “Local media will not be permitted in-store access from Thursday, November 22 through Sunday, November 25. Regular media access will resume Monday, November 26.” Walmart did not immediately respond to The Nation’s inquiry regarding how widespread this policy is, or whether it’s a change from the past.

Local reporters aren’t the only ones Walmart is reportedly keeping out of its stores. At 12:28 am, Huffington Post retail reporter Alice Hines tweeted from Wheatland, Texas: “#kickedoutofwalmart for solicitation but was told i could report in the parking lot”

12:25 am EST: It’s on.

A year and a half after retail workers announced the founding of a new Walmart employee group, five months after guest workers struck a Walmart seafood supplier and seven weeks after the country’s first multi-store Walmart strikes, the Black Friday strike has begun.

Walmart stores opened at 8 pm, drawing additional ire from employees required to come into work on Thanksgiving earlier than ever. But workers’ protests got off to an early start too. Around 7:30 pm EST, thirty workers from three Miami stores went on strike, joining 100-plus supporters for one of several nighttime rallies across the country. “It’s been so long that I’ve been working for people that had no respect for me,” Miami striker Elaine Rozier told The Nation. “They retaliated against me, and they always treated me like crap. And I’m so happy that this is history, that my grandkids can learn from this to stand up for themselves.” In the past, said Rozier, “I always used to sit back and not say anything…. I’m proud of myself tonight.”

At 9:45 pm CST, workers struck and rallied with supporters outside a store in Dallas; OUR Walmart says that the peaceful crowd was dispersed by police. When workers walked off the job in Kenosha, Wisconsin, the group says that managers kicked customers out of the store on the mistaken assumption that they were there to protest. Workers are also on strike in San Leandro, California; and Clovis, New Mexico. Stores in Ocean City, Maryland; Orlando, Florida; and Baton Rouge, Louisiana each have a single worker out on strike. In St. Cloud, Florida, Walmart associate Lisa Lopez was joined by Congressman-elect Alan Grayson as she walked out on strike.

At 11:45 pm, labor and community activists demonstrated outside a store in Quincy, Massachusetts, the first of a string of protests that allied groups promise will hit all forty-eight Walmarts in the state.

OUR Walmart, the union-backed retail worker group that spearheaded last month’s twenty-eight-store strikes, promised last month to pull off a “memorable” Black Friday unless Walmart reversed a slew of allegedly retaliatory firings (Walmart hasn’t). Last week, as workers struck Seattle stores and a Mira Loma warehouse, OUR Walmart pledged 1,000 total actions for the nine days leading up to and including today. Workers say that will include flash mobs, rallies, leaflets, sit-ins and strikes. Retail employees will have back-up from Occupy activists, women’s and consumer groups, and Walmart warehouse workers. But the day’s biggest question may be just how many Walmart store workers choose the risk and the sacrifice of striking. Last month, 160 struck; how many more will join them today?

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Reached over e-mail Sunday, Walmart’s National Media Relations Director Kory Lundberg said, “We do not expect these actions by a very small minority of our associates (less than .0003 percent) at a handful of stores to have any impact on our stores or our customers’ shopping experience on Black Friday.” But the past week offers increasing signs of an aggressive campaign by the company to discourage workers from striking, including mandatory “captive audience” meetings, alleged threats, and public declarations that the strikes aren’t legal and strikers could face “consequences.”

OUR Walmart has also promised strikes in cities including Chicago; Los Angeles; Milwaukee; and Washington, DC; and states including Oklahoma, Mississippi, Louisiana and Minnesota.

Expectations are high for a historic strike. Given Walmart’s role as the dominant employer of our era, the current wave of work stoppages is already among the country’s most consequential twenty-first-century strikes. But in interviews this month, workers and organizers described today’s actions as a turning point, not a climax, in their struggle against the retail giant. “This is the beginning of something…,” said Dan Schlademan, a United Food & Commercial Workers union official who directs the allied group Making Change at Walmart. “This is a new permanent reality for Walmart…. Two thousand and twelve is the beginning of the season where retail workers are going to start to stand up.”

“There’s going to be more days that we’re going to strike,” said Rozier, “and it’s not going to stop. I’m not going to stop until they respect us and give us what we want.”

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