The biggest shopping day of this year is expected to feature some serious labor unrest, as Walmart workers from across the country prepare to stage walkouts. Employees at Walmart stores and warehouses have protested for months citing low wages and poor working, but Black Friday might feature their most dramatic demonstrations yet.
In a Thursday conference call organized by Making Change at Walmart (a project of the United Food and Commercial Workers), employees from California, the South, and the Pacific Northwest explained why they were participating in the walkout. Workers originally threatened in October to take part in Black Friday demonstrations if their demands were not met; now, with Thanksgiving approaching, workers said a Black Friday walkout was inevitable.
"There are loads of people across the nation who work for Walmart and struggle from check to check," said Colby Harris, who works at a store in Dallas, Texas. "At my store...we have to borrow money from each other just to make it to work."
"Working conditions inside the warehouse are very, very bad," said David Garcia, a contract worker at a Walmart warehouse in Southern California. He alleged that many people at his warehouse make under minimum wage while working with unsafe equipment.
"Several of the workers have been temporary workers for five years," he added. Temporary workers do not receive the same benefits extended to permanent employees.
Walmart's anti-union stance has worked well for the company in the past. But over the course of this autumn, the company has been struck by an unprecedented wave of labor unrest in stores and warehouses across the country.
In mid-September, Southern California warehouse workers went on strike and took a 50-mile "pilgrimage" to draw attention to their low wages and poor working conditions. Then, in early October, stores nationwide experienced simultaneous walkouts for the first time in the company's history.
In public, Walmart has attempted to downplay the significance of the strikes, calling them "publicity stunts," but an internal memo obtained by Huffington Post from early October shows top officials bracing for further unrest and coaching salaried managers to deal with labor action. At a protest in front of a warehouse in Illinois, local activists also recorded what they said was private security clad in paramilitary gear.
Several employees on Thursday's conference call reported other examples of intimidation, such as surveillance—and, in some cases, termination—of strike ringleaders. Cayt Lawley, a former Walmart employee in Arkansas, said "managers checked up at me several times an hour looking for problems at my work" after she had spoken to her coworkers about their labor rights. Eventually they found an error at her register worth about $88. Lawley said they then fired her for it even after she offered to pay the difference.
Another former employee in Florida was reportedly handcuffed and detained by Orlando police on Wednesday after he went to a local Walmart to talk to his former co-workers about striking on Black Friday.
On Wednesday morning, Southern California warehouse workers staged another walkout, and on Thursday morning, workers at a store in Seattle followed their lead.
"It's a real hardship to go on strike," said Sara Gilbert, an employee of the Seattle store. "For those of us who live paycheck to paycheck, every hour of every day counts." She said that, despite being a manager, she only makes about $14,000 a year and "still can't make ends meet." Her family lives off of food stamps and state housing, she said.
"We're not angry," said Harris. "We're just frustrated, because we want to see positive change; not just for us, but for our kids and the futures they might have. Our kids might get four year degrees and still end up working for Walmart. And I'm pretty sure we don't want them working in these conditions."
UPDATE (5:54 PM): Walmart has responded with the following statement:
“This is just another exaggerated publicity campaign aimed at generating headlines to mislead our customers and associates.“We have a great group of associates at Walmart. We’ll have more than one million associates working throughout the holiday weekend and they’re excited about our Black Friday plans this year. This is the Super Bowl for retailers and we’re ready.“We’ve been working on our Black Friday plans for almost a year now and we’re prepared to have a great event. Our associates care about providing a great customer experience on Black Friday and we’re confident that’s what customers will have at Walmart this year.“The fact is, these ongoing tactics being orchestrated by the UFCW are unlawful and we will act to protect our associates and customers from this ongoing illegal conduct.”