Thousands of Walmart workers and their supporters in the trade union movement have begun a nationwide series of Black Friday rallies against America's largest private employer, protesting against wages and conditions they say are so low that many employees are forced to rely on government assistance.
Protests are being staged in cities across the US including Los Angeles, Chicago, the Bay Area, Miami, Minneapolis and Washington. The campaigners, who include many current Walmart workers as well as former employees and members of the alliance Our Walmart, are demanding wages of at least $25,000, more full-time openings and an end to retaliation against workers who speak out about their conditions.
With rallies planned outside 1,500 stores, the wave of protests will mark a dramatic increase in the opposition to Walmart's pay structure from Black Friday 2012, when similar events were staged in about 1,000 stores.
"I think we got our message across, and people listened," said Isaiah Beaman, 21, a Walmart worker in Landover, Maryland, who travelled to Alexandria in Virginia to join about 200 protesters there. "All we want is for Walmart to give us a living wage and show us some respect – that's not too much to ask from a multi-billion dollar company."
Norma Torres, a Democratic state senator in California who took part in a rally outside a Walmart store in her district of Pomona, said that the workers "refuse to live in fear and refuse to accept the scraps which they are being paid. They don't want a hand-out, they want a decent wage for their hard work."
Walmart's headquarters in Bentonville, Arkansas, released a statement on Friday morning in which the company focused on the huge business it had done in its US stores on Thursday. It said that more than 10m register transactions had been processed between 6pm and 10pm on Thanksgiving Day.
"Our Black Friday events were bigger, better, faster, cheaper and safer than ever," said Bill Simon, chief executive of Walmarts US. "Black Friday is the Super Bowl of retail, we ran a play that only Walmart could deliver and our customers loved it."
The company insisted it was giving its more than 2 million employees extra benefits, including $70m in holiday pay to its workers paid on an hourly basis and a 25% discount on a Walmart purchase available to workers who performed the Thanksgiving Day shift.
Despite Walmart's claims, the company has come under mounting pressure over its treatment of its staff. Though the retailer drew a $17bn profit last year, it also paid more than 825,000 workers – about two-thirds of its total workforce – less than $25,000 a year. By contrast, the Walton family, which owns more than half of the company, are worth more than $144bn.
A report prepared for the House committee on education and the workforce found that taxpayers were subsidising workers at just one Walmart superstore to the tune of almost $1m a year, in food stamps and other public-assistance programs, to make up for the less-than-subsistence wages they took home.
"Walmart is the nation's largest private-sector employer, yet they pay such low wages that many of its workers are unable to provide their families with the necessities of life," George Miller, the senior Democratic member of the House committee, said at the time.
Walmart also faces an investigation by the National Labor Relations Board, into whether it illegally dismissed workers who took part in last year's Black Friday protests.
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