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Walmart workers lend voices to fight for $15

It's not just fast-food workers. Some Walmart employees are fasting to protest low wages, saying they have to choose between food and paying the rent.
Colorado Walmart employees and supporters join nationwide protests, in front of a Walmart store in Lakewood, Colo. on Nov. 29, 2013.
Colorado Walmart employees and supporters join nationwide protests, in front of a Walmart store in Lakewood, Colo. on Nov. 29, 2013.

A Walmart workers group is stepping up its campaign for $15 an hour and a union.

On Friday, OUR Walmart sent a letter to the Democratic presidential candidates, urging them to address the minimum wage issue in Saturday's debate in Des Moines, Iowa. The letter came hours after the start of a 15-day fast in which 1,000 supporters and hundreds of Walmart workers have committed to a liquids-only diet until Black Friday to protest low wages.

All three Democratic candidates have addressed the issue during the campaign. But they've been responding largely to the demands of fast-food workers, who have mobilized a powerful campaign. Until now, retail workers like those at Walmart have played second fiddle, though they say they face many of the same struggles as employees at McDonald's or Burger King.

"Too often, [Walmart workers] are hungry because we have to choose between paying the rent and having enough food to eat," the group said in a statement Friday. "This isn’t right and we need a President who will champion our cause. While this is a problem nationwide, it is also a major problem in Iowa where you will be Saturday night. In Iowa alone, Walmart has nearly 700 stores and more than 16,500 employees." 

In February, in response to protests, Walmart increased its minimum wage to $9 per hour, and it plans to raise that number to $10 for current employees by February next year. Department store managers, who currently make $13 an hour, will receive $15 next year.

“False attacks and media stunts from the unions have become an annual tradition this time of year,” Walmart said in a statement to MSNBC. “Walmart will continue to focus on our commitment to invest $2.7 billion over this year and next in wages, education and training for our associates.” 

Raising the minimum wage has been a hot button issue on the 2016 presidential campaign trail. Bernie Sanders and Martin O’Malley have both backed calls for a $15 an hour minimum. Hillary Clinton has gone to $12 an hour. Republican candidates have mostly rejected calls for a raise, saying it would cost jobs.

On Tuesday, a year out from the election, low-wage workers in a range of sectors staged the largest strike ever in their years-long battle for a $15-an-hour wage, walking off the job in 270 cities across the country. Now with Black Friday approaching, Walmart workers are gearing up for another show of strength. The group plans to stage actions in all 50 states, including New York, California and Florida, organizers said.

“We are seeing more energy around this Black Friday than any previous one. We have 22 partners that are engaged with actions planned from coast-to-coast," said ​Andrea Dehlendorf, co-executive director of OUR Walmart. “There are few more powerful acts of defiance than fasting, and the number of people willing to go hungry to call out Walmart’s injustices is simply remarkable and unheard of."