Strikes and protests aimed at disrupting the retail giant Walmart during next week's Black Friday sales events began on Thursday with walk-outs at a number of stores and the promise of more actions in the lead-up to what is traditionally the busiest shopping day of the year.
The news comes amid controversy about plans by Walmart and other large chains to open on Thanksgiving evening, kicking off Black Friday a day early. It also comes as another strike has hit part of Walmart's warehouse supply chain in southern California.
At least 30 workers from six different Seattle-area Walmarts have gone on strike, organisers and Walmart staff from the OUR Walmart group said. The group, which is not a union but has close ties with the labour movement, is seeking to protest what it says is low pay, too few hours and retaliation by managers against workers who speak out.
Seattle Walmart worker Sara Gilbert said she had taken the decision to go on strike to protest the fact that she could only make around $14,000 dollars a year. Despite working as a customer service manager, she said, her family remained reliant on food stamps and other benefits. "I work full time at the richest company in the world," she said.
The Seattle strike is aimed at kickstarting a series of protests in the run-up to Black Friday, when more than a thousand separate demonstrations ranging from walk-outs to leafleting to flash mobs are planned. So far they are set to hit Walmart stores in Illinois, Texas, Louisiana, Florida, Oklahoma, Louisiana, Mississippi, Minnesota, Wisconsin and Washington DC.
But organisers say they expect it eventually to be country-wide. "You are going to see unprecedented activity starting now and going into the holiday season. This is going to continue this year and next year," said Dan Schlademan, director of the union-backed Making Change at Walmart group which is helping organise the effort.
Members of OUR Walmart are demanding better wages, better access to benefits and an end to what they say is retaliating against their members who protest or organise. Last month the group helped organise one of the biggest sets of protests to ever hit the retailer when workers held strikes at more than 12 different stores, earning national headlines across the US.
Walmart has said that the complaints of OUR Walmart members represent only a tiny fraction of its huge workforce of 1.3 million people. "There have been a very small number of associates raising concerns about their jobs," said Walmart spokesman Steve Restivo. "When our associates bring forward concerns, we listen. Associates have direct lines of communication with their management team and we work to understand their concerns," he added.
But the Black Friday protests are only one of several areas of controversy to hit Walmart in recent months. The company has also been struck by a series of strikes and protests in its warehouse supply chain, some of which is outsourced to third party logistics firms and staffing agencies.
Those outside companies have been accused by some campaigners of poor safety standards, meagre wages and also retaliating against workers who complain. A group of warehouse workers at a Walmart supply chain warehouse in southern California have also launched a strike action this week following a previous protest in September.
Some 30 workers held a picket outside a huge warehouse in Mira Loma, California, saying that previous strikers had been sacked or had their hours reduced. Javier Rodriguez, a forklift driver at the facility, said managers had drastically cut his hours after the last protest. "This is the form of retaliation that they use for me. It makes it hard to earn enough to feed my family and run my car," he said.
The warehouse is run by logistics giant NFI but supplies goods only to Walmart. An NFI spokeswoman did not respond to a request for comment but the firm has said previously that it adheres to all legal labour standards.
Meanwhile in Illinois, workers at another Walmart supply chain warehouse near the small town of Elwood filed charges to a state labour relations board alleging unfair practises by four different firms involved in the running and staffing of the warehouse. They also relate to claims of retaliation against workers who had previously gone on strike to protest an alleged practise of "wage theft" where employees are not paid for all the time they work.
[Image via AFP]