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By Rhonda Smith
Nov. 27 — For the fourth year in a row on Black Friday, workers at Wal-Mart Stores Inc. and their supporters held protests, rallies and prayer vigils Nov. 27 in front of the big-box retailer's stores nationwide to urge the company to pay higher hourly wages and improve working conditions.
Some workers and their allies who began a 15-day fast starting Nov. 12 to focus attention on the “food insecurity” that organizers said hundreds of Wal-Mart's 1.3 million U.S. workers face (218 DLR A-6, 11/12/15) ended their fast Black Friday in front of the retailer's stores. Some 1,500 workers and their supporters nationwide participated in the fast for various time frames, organizers said.
“Things are going great,” Chicago-based Dan Schlademan, a co-director of a 20-member coalition of groups that support the workers, told Bloomberg BNA Nov. 27. “There are actions up and down the East Coast, in the Midwest—Chicago, Detroit, Minnesota—and in Texas,” among other places, he said.
OUR Walmart Black Friday actions also took place “at hundreds of stores across the country,” organizers said, including in California, Florida, Oregon and Washington state. In addition, more than 200,000 people have signed petitions calling on Wal-Mart to pay its employees better and improve working conditions, they said.
Workers critical of Wal-Mart's employment policies are voluntary members of the Organization United for Respect at Walmart (OUR Walmart), a separate organization created with support from the UFCW by and for the retailer's hourly employees nationwide (195 DLR A-11, 10/9/12). The workers, who are not represented by a union for collective bargaining purposes, want the company to pay them a minimum hourly wage of $15 and offer them full-time work schedules.
Schlademan previously led the UFCW's Making Change at Walmart campaign before he helped establish the new, independent “OUR Walmart Alliance” in September. OUR Walmart's executive board voted to affiliate with the new coalition earlier this year, he said, because many workers believed that the UFCW's effort to support them was not as strong as it once was (180 DLR A-11, 9/17/15).
“Our strategy is working,” Schlademan said of the OUR Walmart workers' ongoing push for the retailer to make changes. For example, he said, Wal-Mart has changed some of its employment policies, including its announcement in February that it would begin paying all of its U.S. hourly workers at least $9 an hour by April and $10 an hour by February 2016. The plan will result in raises for about 500,000 full- and part-time workers in the first half of the current fiscal year, the Bentonville, Ark.-based company said at the time (33 DLR A-11, 2/19/15).
Wal-Mart spokesman Brian Nick told Bloomberg BNA Nov. 27: “[F]rom what we've seen there have literally been a handful of people who actually work at Walmart participate in any event. The rest have been union members and other activists.”
In addition, Wal-Mart stands by the wages and benefits the company's hourly workers are receiving. “We know it takes quality associates to give our customers a great shopping experience and we're proud of the wages and benefits package we offer,” the company's statement said.
Wal-Mart officials also have said the retailer's average full-time hourly employee earns more than $13 an hour, in addition to being eligible to receive quarterly cash bonuses, matching 401(k) retirement contributions and health-care benefits.
“Walmart is investing $2.7 billion over this year and next in wages, education and training for our associates because we know they make the difference,” the statement said.
The UFCW's Making Change at Walmart campaign this year didn't involve holding protests and rallies in front of the retailer's stores like it did in 2012, 2013 and 2014, Jess Levin, a spokeswoman for the campaign, told Bloomberg BNA Nov. 27.
Instead, Wal-Mart workers and their supporters who are working with the union's campaign volunteered on Black Friday at food banks and shelters to help people who have no place to live, she said.
At the core of the union's campaign announced Nov. 24 (226 DLR A-10, 11/24/15) was “Give Back Friday,” Levin said, which UFCW organizers said involved coordinating 1,000 local food drives in cities where the retail giant's 4,500 stores are based. The goal was to help an estimated 100,000 Wal-Mart workers and their families.
“What we've heard from Wal-Mart workers is that many of them rely on those services for assistance year round,” Levin said. “So we felt the best way to help out Wal-Mart workers would be volunteering and donating to those services.”
According to photos posted on social media sites such as Tumblr and Twitter, UFCW Local 338 in Mineola, N.Y., working in conjunction with Suffolk Community College, donated turkeys to food pantries and charitable organizations in New York City and on Long Island for more than 200 families, the union said.
At UFCW Local 1208 in Tar Heel, N.C., members and staff delivered food to the Raleigh Branch of the Food Bank of Central and Eastern North Carolina, and coordinated efforts with the A. Philip Randolph Institute, an organization for black trade unionists, to feed more than 100 families, the local said. Union organizers also sponsored meals for 25 families in Lumberton, N.C., through a partnership with the Black Greek Letter Organizations and the National Pan-Hellenic Council.
“These families got food assistance for Thanksgiving and will also get assistance in December,” Local 1208 said. “We are trying to send a message that there are food needs beyond Thanksgiving that we must address.”
Levin said 150 UFCW locals vowed to participate in efforts at food banks and shelters for homeless people. An estimate of how many workers and their supporters took part in the UFCW's job actions would be provided next week, she said.
The UFCW's Making Change at Walmart strategy will expand next month to include “more in-front-of-store actions like people have been used to for the past four years,” Levin said.
The union also has launched a national advertising campaign that began airing on various television networks on Black Friday. Levin said the ad campaign would continue throughout the next week. The ads include current and former Wal-Mart workers discussing their struggles to make ends meet based on the current wages and benefits.
“Our focus is on a five-week holiday plan,” Levin said. “It's never going to be about just one day of action.”
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