Store Worker Friday: The After Thanksgiving Rush for Big Box Justice

The big box labor force stands to transform America’s most insane shopping event into a national day of protest.

Diana Huffman holds a sign in support of striking Walmart workers protesting unsafe working conditions and poor wages
Expect Walmart workers to be among the retail labor force protesting poor working conditions and low wages. (Photo: Jonathan Alcorn/Reuters)
Matt Fleischer was awarded a Fund for Investigative Journalism grant for his series “Dangerous Jails.”

One year ago, the U.S. economy was in the crapper. The nation was struggling with the lingering effects of the housing bubble collapse. Wages for middle-class workers were stagnant. Unemployment was sky-high. Holiday season threatened to be a sad, scary time for many Americans.

Despite the horrible economy, 2011’s Black Friday post-Thanksgiving sales accounted for more than $11 billion in revenue, as shoppers desperate for deals crowded stores like Walmart in search of deep discounts. Walmart cashed in during the holiday season by working its notoriously poorly-paid employees even harder—keeping its stores open for 24-hours on Thanksgiving, and starting Black Friday sales earlier than its biggest competitors.

MORE: Big Box Workers’ Lament: Voices From Thanksgiving Retail Hell

A year later not much has changed with the country’s financial health. Unemployment has gradually improved, but wages for the working class are still terrible.

This year, however, Walmart workers won’t be taking their lot sitting down. With Walmart’s biggest sales day of the year approaching, store workers across the country have threatened an outright revolt. Protests for higher pay and better working conditions are being planned for Black Friday outside Walmart stores. Worker walkouts could follow if Walmart employees feel the company isn’t responsive to their demands.

“During the busiest retail season of the year, concerned citizens will protest the inadequate jobs that exist in the factories, warehouses and stores all along the big box supply chain.”

“These workers have sent a clear message to Walmart: That their greed and retaliation won’t stand in the way of the fight for fair wages and benefits,” Sarita Gupta, Executive Director of Jobs with Justice (JWJ) and American Rights at Work, tells TakePart. “Now Americans across the country are joining the fight to ensure Walmart hears that workers matter. During the busiest retail season of the year, concerned citizens will protest the inadequate jobs that exist in the factories, warehouses and stores all along the big box supply chain.”

In Massachusetts alone, JWJ has partnered with local affiliates to target 30 stores for action. JWJ hopes to take that number to 48 by the time Black Friday rolls around. “Out of concern for retaliation against workers by Walmart, we are not disclosing many details about the actions before they happen,” says JWJ spokesperson Jonathan Williams.

That said, should you happen to spot an action at your local Walmart, JWJ and other workers rights groups are calling for shoppers to respect these boycotts, or, better yet, to join along in solidarity.

Walmart is appropriately terrified. Rather than sitting down at the table to negotiate with workers, however, the company has decided to get its lawyers involved. On Monday, the largest retailer in the world filed an unfair-labor-practice complaint against the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union—which Walmart says is responsible for the protests.

The motion asks the National Labor Relations Board to issue an injunction preventing workers from picketing or protesting on Black Friday outside Walmart stores.

“We cannot allow the UFCW to continue to intentionally seek to create an environment that could directly and adversely impact our customers and associates,” Walmart spokesperson David Tovar told the Wall Street Journal.

UFCW spokesperson Julie Anderson denies Walmart’s claim that her union is behind the Black Friday protest plans. Though the UFCW has relationships with Walmart employee action groups like OUR Walmart, she says, the real reason behind the protests is that workers have simply had enough of being pushed around.

“Or course we support OUR Walmart,” Anderson tells TakePart. “We support the NAACP too. But these protests come from workers’ desire to stand up to Walmart’s long history of silencing their voices. We respect them for their courage.”

As for Walmart’s proposed injunction: “We think they’re blowing smoke,” says Anderson. “We think it’s an intimidation tactic that won’t work. We think workers will continue to speak.”

Those workers certainly don’t have a lot to lose.

According to a recent Demos study, Walmart cashiers average only $18,500 annually—a sum that hovers around the poverty line. Average annual Walmart associate wages could be raised to $25,000 with only a 1 percent price hike on goods. As evidenced by years of cost-cutting, anti-union, anti-worker policies, Walmart won’t be willing to go this route without a fight. Which is exactly what you can expect workers to start doing this Friday.

Will you or won’t you shop on Black Friday? Leave why or why not in COMMENTS.

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