Kathleen Miles is the executive editor of Noema Magazine. She can be reached on Twitter at @mileskathleen.
DALLAS and LOS ANGELES — As she neared the entrance of a Dallas Walmart shortly before midnight on the eve of the shopping frenzy known as Black Friday, Tammy was both shocked and thrilled to encounter a group of more than 40 protesters.
Having worked for a dozen years as a cashier at another national retail chain, Walgreens, Tammy said she felt an immediate sense of solidarity with the Walmart employees.
“Walmart cuts hours and benefits to push people out,” said Tammy, using her phone to capture video of the protest. “It’s the same thing at Walgreens. The workers are suffering while billionaires make all the money.”
But despite her professed anger at corporate greed, Tammy — who declined to provide her last name lest she jeopardize her job — was not deterred from entering Walmart to purchase a TV on a layaway plan. Her own low wages made her feel a sense of community with the striking Walmart workers, but those same wages also generated pressure to find and buy goods at low prices — precisely the demand that Walmart has fed to turn itself into the world’s largest retailer.
“You gotta go where the sales are,” Tammy said. “Today at Walgreens every toy was half off. I had to work a 12-hour shift, and they didn’t pay me enough. But I can’t tell shoppers, ‘Don’t come in.’ I’d lose my job.”
Tammy wasn’t the only passerby who felt sympathy for the Walmart strikers. In 100 cities across 46 states Thursday and Friday, the protesters were likely to be met by honks and fist pumps from cars as they waved signs and chanted outside Walmart stores. At the Walmart in Paramount, Calif., near Los Angeles, about 600 protesters, including an estimated 100 Walmart workers, turned out Friday morning. In Hanover, Md., 400 store employees, union workers, activists and other supporters showed up at a Walmart Supercenter Friday.
Given their goal of raising awareness among shoppers about low pay, lack of benefits and what they call Walmart’s pattern of punishing workers who try to organize, strikers said their events were a success.
But whether deal-hungry shoppers will support the strikers’ cause with more than just kind words is another question, and one that will be crucial in determining whether the actions have a real impact on America’s labor conditions. While most shoppers interviewed in the Dallas area said they supported the strikers, many were not willing to acknowledge the crucial link between the discounted products they themselves were buying and Walmart’s low-wage jobs.
“The strikers need to pick a day when people aren’t counting on the sales,” said Liz Brookings, who was pushing a cart overflowing with socks and underwear for her four grandchildren on Thursday evening. “A lot of people need this day. They save up for Black Friday all year, and this is all there is.”
Brian Johnson, who was sorting through a bin of discounted CDs at a Paramount Walmart on Friday morning, said the strikers should speak out for what they believe in. “But I’m a teacher, so I also barely make anything, too,” he said. “I have to shop here.”
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Walmart has long responded to critics by touting the insatiable consumer demand for its low-priced goods. In a release on Friday morning, the company noted that it had sold 1.3 million televisions, 1.8 million towels and 250,000 bicycles so far during its Black Friday sales. The first wave of protests Thursday evening were negligible both in size and influence, it said.
“Only 26 protests occurred at stores last night and many of them did not include any Walmart associates,” wrote Bill Simon, president and CEO of Walmart U.S., using the company’s term for its employees. “We estimate that less than 50 associates participated in the protest nationwide. In fact, this year, roughly the same number of associates missed their scheduled shift as last year.”
In another statement released Friday at noon, David Tovar, Walmart’s vice president of communications, added that the “number of protests being reported by the United Food and Commercial Workers Union are grossly exaggerated.”
OUR Walmart, the worker organization that is coordinating the protests backed by the United Food and Commercial Workers Union, contests Walmart’s estimates. Nationwide, there have been more than 1,000 individual actions and strikes so far, which is in line with what OUR Walmart projected, according to Dan Schlademan, director of the union’s Making Change at Walmart campaign.
On a conference call Friday, Schlademan said his organization does not yet have a precise count of the number of workers who walked off, as the strikes are ongoing. There have been “hundreds” of workers and “thousands” of supporters so far, he said.
In the Dallas area, the protests were smaller than expected. While OUR Walmart had estimated there would be about 200 people in attendance, roughly 42 people (half of whom were Walmart workers) turned out for Thursday’s event outside a Dallas store. Seventy-five people turned out for a demonstration Friday morning at the nearby Lancaster, Texas, store.
Other cities around the country, however, had higher-than-expected turnouts. At the Walmart in Paramount, where The Huffington Post counted 600 people at one point, organizers later said that a total of 1,500 people had shown up. Nine people were arrested for sitting in the street, which had been blocked off for the protesters. Those arrested included three Walmart employees, a father of a worker, a former worker, two clergy members and two other supporters, according to organizers.
According to strikers, one reason that so few of their colleagues among Walmart’s 1 million hourly store workers came out with them is that the company intimidates anyone who considers joining a labor group. At the Paramount store, three workers who were not on the job and not participating in the strike told The Huffington Post that they share the strikers’ concerns about low wages, lost benefits and retaliation for speaking up, but they did not strike for fear of losing their jobs. Walmart, for its part, says it never retaliates against workers.
One worker on the job, Alma, told HuffPost that there was a sign about the strike in a back area of the store. “It says something like, ‘Don’t throw your money away [on unions]. We open doors for you and take care of you,’” she said. “But the thing is that’s not true.”
Workers striking in Paramount who had been scheduled to work Friday said they may face retaliation but that the chance to take action was worth it. “People say I could just get a job elsewhere. But why?” said Victoria Martinez, who was scheduled to work Friday at the Pico Rivera, Calif., store. “It will just be the same, and Walmart will get away with this. We can’t run away.”
At Dallas-area demonstrations, protesters had a difficult time approaching the stores’ entrances to talk to customers and ended up staging most of their action near the entrance to the stores’ parking lots. Thursday evening in the Dallas store, when the strikers attempted to approach the store, a dozen police officers and Walmart managers met them halfway and told them to “step back” to their original spot.
“In Texas, we own our parking lots,” explained Jaime Durand, a Walmart human relations manager who was waiting for protesters to arrive outside the Lancaster store Friday morning. “We won’t ask them to stop what they’re doing, but we will be asking them to leave private property so we can maintain a safe area for our customers.”
While the tactic did prevent strikers from disrupting the flow of money into Walmart’s cash registers, many shoppers took the initiative to walk over to where the strikers were demonstrating. At one point, a group of supporters started an impromptu dance party at the parking-lot entrance, waving their arms and legs at cars as a striker beat a drum. Most of the drivers who stopped to watch had cars stuffed with bags of Walmart goods.
“We’re not going to attempt to go inside the store,” said Colby Harris, a Walmart produce department worker from Lancaster who has become something of the public face of the workers’ movement. “We know it would get nasty, and we don’t think it would be smart.”
The protesters will have many more opportunities to reach shoppers over the long holiday season, Harris noted over breakfast Thursday morning. “Walmart knows we’re not going to stop.”
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story described one Walmart store as located in Wheatland, Texas. In fact, the store is on West Wheatland Road in Dallas.