THIS year’s Black Friday anti-Wal-Mart protests in the US were the widest-reaching ever, with pickets and strikes at 1,600 stores in 49 states to remind shoppers that the people serving them often can’t afford to feed themselves.
The AFL-CIO union federation said on the eve of the protests: ‘Today is Black Friday, and Wal-Mart workers and their supporters across the country are calling on the mega-retailer to put an end to retaliation against workers who speak out for better pay and working conditions.
‘There are several ways you can show your solidarity today and help Wal-Mart workers get their fair share of the billions in profits the Walton family earns every year from the hard work of their employees.
‘First, you can join Wal-Mart workers at one of the many nationwide Black Friday protests.
‘If you don’t have an action near you, you can sign the petition, and take a ‘solidarity selfie’ in front of your closest Wal-Mart location explaining why you support Wal-Mart workers, and download, sign and deliver this letter to the store manager.
‘Every action, no matter how small, such as a letter delivery, is recorded by Wal-Mart, so delivering a letter at a store makes a big difference.’
Ferguson protesters joined in the anti-Wal-Mart demonstrations.
They went to major retailers around the St. Louis area to speak out about a grand jury’s decision not to indict the police officer who fatally shot Michael Brown.
In Chicago, some 200 Ferguson solidarity protesters gathered near the city’s popular Magnificent Mile shopping district.
Early Friday in the St. Louis suburb of Manchester, about two dozen people chanted ‘no justice, no peace, no racist police’ and ‘no more Black Friday’ after police moved them out of a Wal-Mart.
Officers warned the protesters risked arrest if they didn’t move at least 50 feet from the store’s entrance, then began advancing in unison until the protesters moved further into the parking lot.
The mostly black group of protesters chanted in the faces of the officers, most of whom were white, as shoppers looked on.
Chenjerai Kumanyika, an assistant professor at Clemson University, said: ‘We want to really let the world know that it is no longer business as usual.’
Demonstrations also occurred at a Wal-Mart and Target in Brentwood, Missouri, two Wal-Marts in St. Charles and one Wal-Mart in Manchester. Protesters at a Target in Brentwood chanted ‘shut it down.’
Protests have been taking place in Ferguson and across the country since last Monday night’s announcement that white Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson wouldn’t be indicted for fatally shooting the unarmed black 18-year-old in August.
In a plaza near Chicago’s historic water tower, a member of the Let Us Breathe Collective, which has been taking supplies such as gas masks to protesters in Ferguson, Kristiana Colon, 28, said last Friday was ‘a day of awareness and engagement.’
She said: ‘We want them to think twice before spending that dollar today. As long as black lives are put second to materialism, there will be no peace.’
Malcolm London, a leader in the Black Youth Project 100, which has been organising Chicago protests, said the group is trying to rally support for other issues, such as more transparency from Chicago police.
At one of the 1,600 Wal-Mart protests, Fatmata Jabbie, a 21-year-old single mother of two who earns $8.40 an hour working at a Wal-Mart in Alexandria, Virginia, said: ‘I have to depend on the government mostly.’
She makes ends meet with food stamps, subsidised housing, and Medicaid. Fatmata added: ‘Wal-Mart should pay us $15 an hour and let us work full-time hours. That would change our lives. That would change our whole path. I wouldn’t be dependent on government too much. I could buy clothes for my kids to wear.’
Wal-Mart is the nation’s largest employer, with 1.4 million employees, or 10 per cent of all retail workers, and pulls in $16bn in annual profits.
Its largest stockholders (Christy, Jim, Alice, and S. Robson Walton) are the nation’s wealthiest family, collectively worth $145 billion.
Yet the company is notorious for paying poverty wages and using part-time schedules to avoid offering workers benefits.
Last year, a report commissioned by Congressional Democrats found that each Wal-Mart store costs taxpayers between $900,000 and $1.75m per year because so many employees are forced to turn to government aid.
The group behind the Black Friday protests, the union-backed Organisation for Respect at Wal-Mart (OUR Wal-Mart) was founded in 2011 to pursue a new approach to improving labour conditions at the retail giant.
Like the holiday retail season, this year’s Wal-Mart protests actually started before Black Friday.
Last Wednesday, workers walked off their shift demanding a $15 wage and full-time hours.
Other Wal-Mart workers walked off the job in California, Florida, Illinois, Louisiana, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Texas, Virginia, Wisconsin, and Washington, D.C.
On Thanksgiving Day, 12 striking Wal-Mart workers and community members began a 24-hour fast to protest over wages so low they leave employees hungry.
On Black Friday, on a press call with OUR Wal-Mart, Shomari Lewis, a worker for a Wal-Mart store in Dallas, said 100 picketing employees attempted to enter the store but were denied access. He said: ‘I’m 32 and I am nowhere near where my parents were at this time in their lives. I thought getting a job in the nation’s largest employer would be a great way to start a career, but boy, was I wrong.’
He makes around $9 an hour and can’t afford a car. ‘I can’t just go out and buy food during the pay period because I don’t even know how much I’ll have money for . . . I don’t know how we are supposed to have families or raise them when Wal-Mart is keeping us in poverty.’
Ronee Hinton, a Wal-Mart employee who participated in a sit-down strike in Washington, DC, last Friday morning, said: ‘We know that the Waltons can afford to pay us better.’
She gets paid $8.40 an hour for 20 to 30 hours a week, and her schedule arbitrarily shifts ‘all the time.’ She said that this forces her to choose ‘between going to a doctor’s appointment and missing a shift at work’.
Ronee stressed: ‘It’s not a choice that I want to make especially now that I am expecting a baby . . . I don’t know how I will raise a child on Wal-mart’s pay.’
At a Wal-Mart in Los Angeles, community members and Wal-Mart workers were continuing a 24-hour strike to protest against the company’s hunger wages.
Richard Reynoso, a stocker at the store who had not eaten since Thursday, said: ‘The hunger I’m experiencing right now is all too familiar. Many Wal-Mart workers experience it every day . . .
nobody who works for the richest company in America should ever experience that kind of thing.’
Many of the protests had a festive feel. There was a live band in DC, and a Santa Claus in Denver.
In Chicago, seven Wal-Mart workers were arrested while blocking traffic on the road on front of the store.
In Washington State, there were protests at all 64 stores in the state. Some of the biggest demonstrations took place outside Wal-Marts in Chicago and Washington D.C., as well in cities in California, Washington, Texas and New Jersey.
At a store in North Bergen, N.J., about 75 protesters marched around the parking lot. They carried signs that read: ‘People who work deserve a living wage’ and ‘Shame on Wal-Mart.’ At times they chanted: ‘Wal-Mart, your kingdom must come down.’
Only Colorado Wal-Mart worker, Barbara Gertz, spoke at the rally outside the New Jersey store. Taking part were members of unions including the United Food and Commercial Workers Union and the American Postal Workers Union.
Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers union, got on the megaphone to speak to the crowd. She pledged: ‘We will not rest until Wal-Mart workers have a right to a union, a right to a living wage, and a right to decent working conditions and hours.’
Hundreds of people marched from Union Station to one of Washington D.C.’s first Wal-Mart locations last Friday morning. Nineteen employees at the D.C. protest had planned to deliver their demands to management. But as of 9:30am, the doors to the H Street NW store were locked, according to AFL-CIO community affiliate Working America and others on the scene.
D.C. Jobs for Justice organiser Ari Schwartz said: ‘The truth is that today at H Street and last night at Georgia Avenue, actual employees of both stores – plus dozens of other associates from Maryland and Virginia – brought a letter to management with their demands. Today Wal-Mart managers chose to lock the associates out rather than honour their “open door policy”.
‘In both cases, hundreds of D.C. residents accompanied the workers because they heard that on Wednesday, when workers went on strike at H Street, Wal-Mart managers illegally threatened to fire them in retaliation. D.C. residents want DC jobs to be good jobs and Wal-Mart is the biggest obstacle to that in our city.’