BREAKING: Wal-Mart workers strike, Target workers threaten to join Black Friday walkout

Exclusive: Puget Sound workers are latest to join the strike wave, with weeks to go before a Black Friday showdown

Published November 12, 2013 2:00PM (EST)

Employee protesting in front of Walmart                                (AP/J Pat Carter)
Employee protesting in front of Walmart (AP/J Pat Carter)

Four days after the end of a Southern California strike, Seattle-area Wal-Mart workers plan to mount their own walkout this morning. The one-day strike is the latest in the lead-up to a larger day of strikes and protests planned for Black Friday, the high-profile post-Thanksgiving shopping day at the end of this month.

“I don’t know if I’ll see it in my lifetime,” Washington Wal-Mart employee Mary Watkines told Salon in a pre-strike interview, but  “I want all of the associates, including myself, to be able to walk into our workplace, you know, this place that they call our family … and not be physically ill, not just feel like you want to throw up or pass out or even just turn around and walk out” over “intimidation and humiliation.” Watkins added, “I want people to be able to live better, you know, like the commercial says … Nobody lives better except for the Waltons now.”

Today’s strike is the latest by the non-union worker group OUR Walmart, which is closely tied to the United Food & Commercial Workers union. As I’ve reported, OUR Walmart has promised major mobilization for this year's “Black Friday” strike; organizers say last year's drew 400-some strikers. Sub-contracted Twin Cities janitorial workers who clean stores for Target and other corporations plan to announce today that they’re prepared to strike that day as well.

“I need to be able to take care of my family,” Anthony Goytia told reporters on a conference call during last week’s SoCal strike. “And that’s why yesterday and today, I’m risking everything -- my livelihood, my ability to provide for my family, my ability to pay rent on time, put food on the table – everything, by striking against a company that aggressively and illegally disciplines and fires workers who speak out for better jobs.”

Last week’s Los Angeles-area strike culminated in a downtown demonstration at which 54 activists were arrested in what the campaign called the largest act of civil disobedience in Wal-Mart’s 51-year history. Organizers said a count of the total number of workers who went on strike was not yet available. The same day as the civil disobedience, the OUR Walmart campaign unveiled a new website on which Wal-Mart workers can share stories and request protests anonymously or by name, and a petition to the president.

Authored by Chicago employee Charmaine Givens-Thomas, the petition urges that Obama “make good on your promise to stand up for working people by meeting with the courageous workers who are risking termination or other disciplinary action by joining together as Organization United for Respect at Walmart.” (The petition is housed by the activism arm of Credo Mobile, a phone company that funds and instigates progressive activism but has come under its own labor criticism for providing its phone service through Sprint, which has battled unionization.) As I’ve reported, Wal-Mart has fired 20 workers who participated in a work stoppage and Freedom Ride-inspired caravan to protest Wal-Mart’s June shareholder meeting. The Obama administration has continued publicly appearing with and praising Wal-Mart despite the UFCW requesting it desist during Obama’s first term; U.S. Labor Secretary Thomas Perez told me in September that he lacked sufficient familiarity with the alleged retaliation by Wal-Mart to weigh in. The White House did not immediately respond to a Monday evening inquiry regarding the new petition.

Asked about the planned Black Friday escalation, Wal-Mart spokesperson Brooke Buchanan told Salon the company was “really focused on serving our customers, and giving our customers and our associates the best holiday ever.” Asked about retaliation allegations, Buchanan said the company had “a strict anti-retaliation policy,” and also that “we do enforce attendance policies when they are broken.” (Asked last summer about Wal-Mart’s contention that some workers who were fired were being disciplined for violating attendance rules and potentially impacting service, not specifically for protesting, former National Labor Relations Board Chairwoman Wilma Liebman told me “the case law doesn’t sustain that as a valid defense” for punishing workers who went on strike.)

“When I was 15 I marched with Dr. Martin Luther King in Chicago …” Givens-Thomas told reporters. “When they elected our President Obama, I was just overwhelmed with happiness that the day had finally come where things in this country seemed to be on a positive note.” However, she said, “no livable wage jobs are being created in this time period, and it’s taking the country in the wrong direction. And we really would like for President Obama to stand up for the workers like he said he would do when he ran for office and we voted him in.” She added, “We are his constituents and we are suffering.”

Today’s strike also follows a one-day work stoppage last month by employees in Hialeah, Fla., which OUR Walmart says yielded concrete victories, including the transfer of a manager, increased raises for employees, 40-hour schedules for workers who’d lacked them, and payment for the time the workers spent on strike. Wal-Mart spokesperson Buchanan told Salon, “I categorically disagree” with the contention that the strike led to improvements for workers, crediting changes to “the process that Wal-Mart has in place for all of our associates” to raise issues with management, rather than any “outside influence.” Buchanan said, “We do not pay people for protesting, but folks who were willing, associates who were willing to participate in a dialogue, in a one-on-one conversation or a group conversation with leadership about their questions and concerns were compensated that day.” Asked whether those workers were paid for the entire day on which the work stoppage occurred, or just for however much time they spent meeting with management, Buchanan told Salon, “I don’t know offhand.”

Whereas “before we were just like a little pain in the side,” Watkines told Salon she hoped striking would help workers “to get heard.” Come Black Friday, she said, “I would just like to see the community, the associates, realize that if we stand together, then we can make a difference. And maybe next Black Friday, we’ll be getting a piece of that money that’s coming in. We’ll be able to celebrate Thanksgiving.”

By Josh Eidelson

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Business Puget Sound Retail Seattle Strikes Target The Labor Movement Wal-mart Work Stoppage