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Muted labor protests amid fears of Walmart retaliation

Two fired Walmart workers and one current employee were arrested Thursday during a national wave of demonstrations against the company. The protesters, members
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Two fired Walmart workers and one current employee were arrested Thursday during a national wave of demonstrations against the company.

The protesters, members of the labor group OUR Walmart, were demonstrating outside the Manhattan office of investment banker Christopher Williams, a member of the Walmart board of directors. The protesters hoped to deliver Williams a petition demanding that Walmart pay all employees a minimum wage of $25,000 annually and stop its alleged retaliation against strikers. Two weeks ago, OUR Walmart promised an escalation in the ongoing dispute with the company if those demands were not met by Labor Day.

OUR Walmart organizers promise similar events and rallies across 15 cities nationwide over the course of the day. The rolling series of actions, which organizers say will include hundreds of Walmart employees and thousands more community supporters, is expected to be the largest anti-Walmart event since last year's Black Friday strike.

But this time, nobody is going to be striking; and even though organizers are not asking Walmart employees to walk off the job, fewer are expected to show up than during Black Friday. If Walmart did lay off some 20 organized workers to send a message, as OUR Walmart claims and Walmart denies, then it appears to be working.

"People are scared because they see how Walmart retaliates," said Colby Harris, an OUR Walmart member and Walmart employee based in Dallas, Texas. He claimed that OUR Walmart has more members than ever, but "not everyone has spoken out because of the reality of losing their jobs."

In late May and early June, roughly 100 Walmart employees affiliated with OUR Walmart engaged in what they said was an unfair labor practice (ULP) strike against the company. Strikers are protected from termination by the National Labor Relations Act, but Walmart has argued that the category doesn't apply to workers who engage in what Walmart spokesperson Kory Lundberg has called "hit-and-run intermittent work stoppages that are part of a coordinated union plan."

"We actually have a very strict policy against retaliation at Walmart," said Walmart spokesperson Brooke Buchanan. "And the associates who were terminated were terminated for other reasons, violating our policies, and it did not have anything to do with their association with this group or any other group. If a Walmart associate alleges retaliation has occurred, we will look into the situation, investigate, and take appropriate action."

Dominic Ware, an OUR Walmart member and former Walmart employee based in the Bay Area, said he was fired in early July and that management told him specifically it was because of his participation in the May-June strike.

"They said the strike was not recognized as a ULP strike," he said. Though Ware has tried to discuss the firing with his former manager, "to this day, he will not have an open door with me."

In addition to the 20 workers which OUR Walmart claims have been wrongfully fired, they say another 50 or so have been disciplined for organizing. Harris, though he is still employed at Walmart, told MSNBC he had been written up three times already.

Buchanan shrugged off the latest protests, describing them as "a handful of union-orchestrated media stunts" and saying that OUR Walmart grossly exaggerated the number of Walmart employees involved.

"This is not an associate-based demonstration," said Buchanan. "This has been sponsored and put on by the unions, something they've attempted and failed to be successful at over the last couple of years." She also claimed that many demonstrators were paid to appear at protests, an allegation which OUR Walmart said is untrue.