Protesters picket outside a Walmart store as holiday sales commence in San Leandro, California, November 22, 2012. (Reuters/Noah Berger)
In twelve weeks, on the busiest shopping day of the year, Walmart workers will mount what may be the biggest-ever US strike against the retail giant. In an e-mailed statement, a campaign closely tied to the United Food & Commercial Workers union promised “widespread, massive strikes and protests for Black Friday,” the day after Thanksgiving. A Black Friday strike last year, in which organizers say over 400 workers walked off the job, was the largest and highest-profile action to date by the union-backed non-union workers’ group OUR Walmart, and the largest US strike in the company’s five-decade history.
“We’re standing strong,” Maryland Walmart employee Cindy Murray told The Nation Friday morning, after being held in jail overnight with other activists for a civil disobedience protest. “The Black Friday strikers are going to be back for Black Friday, if things don’t change before that. And we’re stronger than ever.” Asked whether more Walmart workers would walk off the job this coming Black Friday than did last year, the campaign told The Nation that it expected a very strong showing, but that planning had just begun and it was too early to offer numbers.
Workers first formally announced this year’s Black Friday strike at demonstrations held yesterday in fifteen cities across the country. According to organizers, hundreds of Walmart employees and thousands of supporters participated in yesterday’s mobilization; 109 protesters were arrested for acts of civil disobedience in eleven cities, including Baton Rouge, Dallas, Los Angeles, Chicago and New York. Photos show some police wearing riot gear while removing activists seated in the street.
Asked this morning about yesterday’s protests and the planned Black Friday strike, a Walmart spokesperson questioned OUR Walmart’s turnout figures, e-mailing, “Did they give you those numbers with a straight face?” In a statement e-mailed Thursday morning, another company spokesperson dismissed yesterday’s demonstrations as a “union-backed publicity stunt,” and said, “At many 2012 protests there were no Walmart associates to be found at all…except of course the more than 1 million people who chose to work that day, helping to contribute to Walmart’s best Black Friday ever.”
As The Nation reported Tuesday, yesterday’s demonstrations were the latest escalation in OUR Walmart’s efforts to punish the retail giant for firing twenty activists who participated in a June strike, and for disciplining more than fifty others. Walmart has denied illegally retaliating, saying it “applied the time and attendance policy to the individual absences in the same way we do for other associates.”
Murray told The Nation that Walmart’s alleged retaliation “has scared people, because of them not being held responsible by the federal Labor Board. But there are still workers that are now tired and fed up, that joined us yesterday.” OUR Walmart has filed charges with the National Labor Relations Board over the alleged retaliation, and sought a federal injunction to expedite handling of the allegations; the NLRB did not respond to a request for comment last month.
Along with reinstatement of fired workers, yesterday’s demonstrations also demanded the company offer an annual wage of at least $25,000; they come as DC Mayor Vince Gray appears likely to veto a local “large retailer” living wage bill fiercely opposed by Walmart.
The current effort against Walmart exemplifies some key tactics being taken up within an embattled US labor movement: alternative organizational structures that aren’t about collective bargaining; organizing across a supply chain and beyond those workers considered a corporation’s legal “employees”; and short-term “minority strikes” in which workers walk off the job to embarrass their employer, engage the public and inspire more co-workers to join them. The specter of management retaliation represents the greatest challenge to such efforts. The number of Walmart workers who choose to strike on November 29 will be a measure of how well OUR Walmart can meet that challenge.
Murray told The Nation that pushback from Walmart “has helped me to grow stronger, and I know that what we’re doing is right.” She compared OUR Walmart’s efforts to raise the retail giant’s labor standards to historic campaigns in auto plants and coal mines. “We want the same thing,” said Murray. “We want respect on our job.”
Some former Walmart workers are arrested for their acts of civil disobedience.