Tens of thousands protest, over 100 arrested in Black Friday challenge to Wal-Mart

After rallies across the country, burning question remains whether more Wal-Mart employees will defy retaliation

Published November 30, 2013 12:40AM (EST)

  (Reuters/Lucy Nicholson)
(Reuters/Lucy Nicholson)

Organizers say 111 people were arrested in eight Black Friday civil disobedience actions against Wal-Mart, with more arrests expected at a ninth and final such demonstration now underway in San Leandro, California. Those actions are among 1,500 total protests promised for today by the union-backed group OUR Walmart, which last year said it mobilized 400-some Wal-Mart employees to strike.

“Wal-Mart workers and community supporters, we refuse to live in fear and refuse to accept scraps,” employee Martha Sellers told reporters on a mid-day call. She was joined by arrestee Betty Shove, who said she'd been "harassed" for OUR Walmart activism, and was “standing up for every member that cannot, that will not, because they’re too afraid to lose their job.”

In May, as workers kicked off a several-day strike and caravan to Wal-Mart's shareholder meeting which was followed by the firing of twenty-three participants, United Food & Commercial Workers strategist Dan Schlademan told me, “we’re certainly going to prove it’s growing this year.” But as I suggested this morning, how today’s Black Friday activism compares to last year’s depends on how you count. While strikes were the centerpiece of Black Friday 2012, this year the campaign focused on civil disobedience actions, which involved a mix of current Wal-Mart employees, fired workers, and other supporters. OUR Walmart said it hit its goal of holding at least 1,500 protests, and that those involved tens of thousands of people, but said it did not yet have a count of how many Wal-Mart employees were involved. In a September statement, the campaign pledged “widespread, massive strikes and protests for Black Friday.”

In a Friday evening statement, Wal-Mart said, “In reality, we counted fewer than 20 current associates participating in events.” Asked about that claim, a spokesperson for the UFCW’s Making Change at Walmart campaign e-mailed, “That’s laughable and it is disrespectful to workers and supporters who are raising real concerns about low wages at Walmart. Walmart workers have been striking all month and were out protesting across the country today.”

Asked mid-day Friday if a decline in the number of employees striking today compared to last year would reveal something about OUR Walmart’s organizing or Walmart’s pushback over the past year, OUR Walmart’s Schlademan noted there had been strikes throughout the past month, including “cities that have never gone on strike before.” He told Salon, “this movement continues to grow, Wal-Mart workers’ courage continues to grow, Wal-Mart workers willing to strike continues to grow. Today is a day about protest, and that is growing as well. So everything that we’re seeing continues to demonstrate that this is a growing movement.”

Schlademan, an architect of OUR Walmart, added, “Wal-Mart is on the run more than it’s ever been in terms of having to answer to the kinds of jobs it’s creating.” He said this Black Friday had been “a day of protests - this isn’t a day of strikes. The strikes have been happening all month.” Asked how many total employees had participated in those strikes, Schlademan said a count wasn’t yet available.

Historian Nelson Lichtenstein, who directs the Center for the Study of Work, Labor and Democracy at UC Santa Barbara, told me he didn’t see evidence of “a mass movement among Wal-Mart workers,” but did detect “a sentiment that these retailers have gone too far” which extended beyond “just the chattering class.” “There’s no kind of insurgent movement that’s going to actually strike these stores," said Lichtenstein, "but on the other hand there’s a sense there’s a real problem here.” Lichtenstein, the author of The Retail Revolution: How Wal-Mart Created a Brave New World of Business, argued that Congress’ curbing the filibuster and approving a full complement of National Labor Relations Board members created the possibility that the NLRB would eventually take muscular action to restrain Wal-Mart from retaliating, and that if workers were thus free to speak out without losing their jobs, “then other workers would say, ‘Well, I guess I can speak out too,’ and that would have a snowball effect.” In the meantime, he credited Wal-Mart and fast food workers’ activism with shifting local politics in a more pro-labor direction. (Wal-Mart denies that it broke the law by firing workers for missing work during strikes.)

Asked last week whether it would be a worrying sign if fewer workers were on strike this Black Friday than last year, Interfaith Worker Justice Executive Director Kim Bobo told me, “I don’t really so.” Bobo, whose group planned to arrange protests at 150 stores today, said, “I don’t think the only way workers organize and show solidarity and push the company is by striking. Often some of the most interesting things workers do [are] done internally without striking,” including store-by-store actions that take place out of public view. “The media likes the strikes because it’s very visible and very whatever,” she added, “but I don’t think it’s actually a particularly good indicator of the strength or lack thereof of the organizing.”

As the past week’s scrutiny on a Wal-Mart employee-to-employee charity food drive showed, Walmart strikers have captured a share of public imagination that past slick PR efforts never did. But faced with an apparent onslaught of intimidation, it’s not clear whether Wal-Mart’s courageous minority is much closer to building a bigger mass movement than it was one year ago. As I argued this morning, the most important test of today’s activism will be to what extent it proves to have advanced that goal.

Placerville employee Dorothy Halvorson, who was arrested this morning in Sacramento, told me beforehand that she believed civil disobedience “makes people realize how serious we are, and how strongly we feel about what we’re doing.” She added, “I wholeheartedly believe in making a change – if that’s what it takes, then I will do it.” Halvorson said increasing community support and media attention showed her the cause was “definitely getting stronger,” and that she’d be back at work Monday ready to urge more co-workers to join her. “I will tell them what I did, if they want to hear – and hopefully they do,” said Halvorson. “And I’m sure it’s going to be all over. Last time it was too.”

By Josh Eidelson

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Black Friday Crime Labor Law Nlrb Protests Retaliation Wal-mart