Hundreds demonstrated outside Walmart stores across the country on Black Friday to protest what they say are “poverty wages” and poor working conditions for workers of the retail giant. Organizers with the group OUR Walmart say more than 110 people were arrested at various Black Friday demonstrations in cities across the country, according to the protest organizers, in cities including Sacramento, St. Paul, Seattle and Chicago. In total, demonstrations took place in 46 states across the country.
“We cannot wait any longer. That’s why I’m standing up today – for my coworkers, my family and my community,” said Myron Bird, a worker from Walmart’s Lakeview location in Chicago. Bird was arrested with nine others at the Chicago store for participating in civil disobedience and blocking the street.
Bird said he makes $16,000 a year as a full-time employee at Walmart, a figure all too common for the store's workers according to the protest organizers, who are calling for an annual wage of $25,000 for full-time employees. OUR Walmart and its allies say the company can afford to do better. According to a report released by Demos, a progressive public policy organization, Walmart spent $7.6 billion last year buying back shares of its own stock. Amy Traub, co-author of the report and senior analyst at Demos, says that by redirecting the money used for buying back its shares to its frontline workforce, the company could afford to raise employee wages by $5.83 an hour, which would ensure that all full-time employees would make an annual salary of $25,000.
Protests against the retailer have been heating up over recent weeks. Earlier this month, some 100 people rallied at the Walmart in Chatham, one of three Chicago stores where protests were held as part of a national series of demonstrations. Representatives from OUR Walmart, which is tied to the United Food and Commercial Workers Union say in addition to a living wage, they want respect for Walmart workers, who they say have been targeted unfairly for trying to organize.
Last month, the National Labor Relations Board announced it would pursue charges against the retail giant for unlawfully threatening and retaliating against employees who took part in similar strikes and protests last year. The Office of the General Counsel of the NLRB said it “found merit” in allegations that Walmart unlawfully threatened, disciplined or terminated employees in several states, including Illinois, “in anticipation of or in response to” them engaging in strikes or protests. While the Board did not find merit in all the allegations against Walmart, including accusations of shifting work schedules to prevent employees’ from participating in strikes, labor leaders applauded the charges that are set to be investigated.
UFCW International President Joseph Hansen said the charges were “enough” to show that employees were being targeted. “Lost in the stories of gifts and gadgets is the plight of the workers stocking the shelves,” Hansen added.
Walmart representatives downplayed the protests, saying the amount of demonstrations were “grossly exaggerated.”
“We don’t think this will have any impact to our overall business,” a spokesperson told the Associated Press.
Still, supporters say Walmart needs to step up for its workers. Rev. Walter P. Turner III of the New Spiritual Light Missionary Baptist Church, who was also arrested Friday at the Lakeview location said, “These courageous workers have stood together and stood together for their right to stand up. Walmart must end their attempts to silence them and recognize the dignity of their hard work. Walmart workers deserve better and Chicago deserves better.”