Quick Hit Ashlee Rezin Wednesday June 4th, 2014, 7:17pm

Fight For Higher Wages, Better Working Conditions At Walmart Rages On (VIDEO)

Just days before the kick-off of Walmart’s annual shareholders meeting, employees of the world’s largest retailer renewed their call for higher wages and better working conditions Wednesday outside of a store on the South Side of Chicago.

“I have bills to pay, but I just don’t make enough money,” said Charmaine Givens-Thomas, 61, a Walmart worker on the city’s North Side for more than eight years. She earns $12.05 per hour, but depends on public assistance to supplement her income.

“It’s devastating, sometimes I actually run out of food,” she said.

Givens-Thomas was one of roughly 100 people who protested outside Chicago’s Chatham neighborhood store, at 8331 S. Stewart Ave., Wednesday to call for better working conditions at Walmart and a minimum salary of $25,000 a year, or $12.25 an hour, for full-time workers. The Chicago demonstration was one of at least 20 protests nationwide held in anticipation of the retailer’s annual shareholder meeting June 6.

“Walmart is the largest employer, they are setting the standard and they are keeping workers in poverty,” said Susan Hurley, executive director of Chicago Jobs with Justice, who helped organize Wednesday’s protest. “If workers were able to get a raise and make $25,000 a year, that means a huge boost to our economy and it means pulling a-million-and-a-half workers out of poverty.”

The protesters cited comments made last year by Bill Simon, CEO of Walmart U.S., stating that more than 475,000 of its roughly 1 million hourly full-time store workers earn $25,000 or more per year.

“This company needs to value the people that make it so profitable,” Hurley said. “They’re worth more, they deserve more and we’re going to keep fighting until they get more.”

Since Walmart employees began campaigning for higher wages, better working conditions and more opportunities for part-timers in 2012, the workers, supported by the UFCW-backed United for Respect at Walmart (OUR Walmart), have seen several significant wins.

In February, company officials announced that they are tossing around the idea of supporting a raise of the federal minimum wage.

About two months later, in April, Walmart announced it would expand the Access to Open Hours program to the retailer’s 4,868 stores nationwide. The program allows part-time workers the opportunity to view and request available work shifts. That same month, the company unveiled a new policy that safeguards pregnant workers from discriminatory firings, reduced work hours or other penalities due to their condition.

But Hurley said, considering less than half of Walmart workers earn less than $25,000 a year, the company still has a long way to go.

“It is long past time for Walmart to do the right thing,” Hurley said.

Here's more from Hurley and Wednesday's demonstration:

According to OUR Walmart, the retailer made about $16 billion in profit in 2013. Also, the six members of the Walton family, who own more than half of Walmart’s shares, saw their wealth increase to $148.8 billion.

In a statement issued to Progress Illinois, Walmart claims it strives to meet the needs of its hourly workers.

It’s not unusual to see the same union group stage events around our shareholders meeting. We are proud of the unparalleled career opportunities for associates at Walmart. Our associates have the opportunity to climb the ladder from a stocker or a cashier to a department manager to a store manager and beyond.

Walmart listens to its associates every day to meet their needs, help them develop professionally, and build better lives. In fact, last year we promoted more than 170,000 associates to jobs with more responsibility and high pay.

Meanwhile, 65-year-old Anna Pritchett went on strike from the Chatham neighborhood store to participate in Wednesday’s protest.

“I am standing here today, because when my coworkers hurt, I hurt,” said Pritchett, who has worked at Walmart for more than two years and earns $9.55 per hour. “We will win if we stand together.”

Pritchett said she worked full time throughout 2013, but earned less than $16,000 in wages.

“This is a joke,” she said. “It’s time for a change.”

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