Today is Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving, when American retailers kick off the holiday shopping season through heavily advertised sales and greatly expanded operating hours. This year, it’s also the day Walmart workers throughout the country hope to draw national attention to their complaints of low pay and generally poor working conditions by participating in a one-day walkout—the Black Friday strike.
Workers at Walmart’s retail stores and warehouse suppliers have engaged in a number of one-day walkouts since early October. Most of the strikers, including the Black Friday ones, belong to Organization United for Respect at Walmart (OUR Walmart), an online coalition of Walmart associates that started in June 2011 and has relied almost entirely on social media to operate.
OUR Walmart has received some financial support from established workers’ unions but is not officially affiliated with any (in part because Walmart is notorious for shutting down departments or even closing entire stores, whenever workers voted to unionize).
But unions aren’t the only route to collective bargaining. “We want a better wage, and the respect due to us in our workplace,” Mary Pat Tifft said in a phone interview with the Dot. She’s one of OUR Walmart’s leaders, a Wisconsin grandmother who’s worked at Walmart for 24 years. She also believes that without social media, OUR Walmart might not exist at all. “Social media is what carried the word. Up until this point, you always felt the issues were just in your store.” OUR Walmart, spread via free social media platforms, “piqued the curiosity of lots of workers. I get PMs or emails every few days from people asking about it, asking if it’s legitimate.”
So why, exactly, is OUR Walmart striking? Tifft sighed. “Unfortunately, the press kind of changed the story, makes it sound like we’re just workers upset because we had to work on Thanksgiving. That is minor.” The workers’ complaints have nothing to do with “one store, with one location… it’s a nationwide crisis of retaliation against workers who complain.”
Officially, U.S. labor law forbids employers from firing workers who go on strike to protest working conditions, provided certain conditions are met. Unofficially, employers can still find ways to retaliate.
“Walmart actually has a no-retaliation policy,” Tifft said. But workers who dare complain are still made to suffer: “They’ll cut your hours. You’ll get no hours at all some weeks… it appears the more you speak out, the more they retaliate.”
Still, Tifft and her fellow workers have high hopes—albeit long-term hopes—for today’s strike. OUR Walmart has scored some success thus far on an individual, store-by-store basis (though nothing systemic throughout the corporation). For example, on ForRespect.org, a worker from a Maryland store reported one small victory:
“At my store we’ve really been affected by inconsistent scheduling. My coworkers and I worked with management to find a solution. Now they post a schedule of available shifts, so that we can get more hours if we want.”
Tifft said, “Some workers are lucky, and have sympathetic management. I’m one of the lucky ones.”
How many workers are participating in the Black Friday strike? So far, nobody – not even the strikers themselves – knows for certain. All Tifft knows is “It started out as a small group. So many associates are afraid to speak out, for fear of retaliation.” But the number of particpants has steadily grown throughout the day. “I just got off a conference call, and learned that workers in Atlanta and Minnesota have joined us.”
Still, there are no hard numbers. The company itself seems determined to ignore the matter as much as possible; Dawn Le, a spokesman for Making Change at Walmart (a union-backed group devoted to Walmart work issues, and an OUR Walmart ally), told the Dot, “They’re blowing us off.”
Early on Black Friday, Fox Business news reported that, according to Walmart, a mere 50 workers took part in the protests.
But by early afternoon, to offer just one counter-example, The Nation’s liveblog of the strike claimed 400 picketers (not necessarily limited to workers) at just one location in Maryland.
Throughout Black Friday, strikers and sympathizers posted updates on OUR Walmart’s Facebook page—and a handful of trolls posted insults about the group. Charles Gould, presumably referring to Walmart’s “50 strikers” claim, posted:
“Never thought I would see scabs for a protest strike. You really had support out there from Walmart Employees. 50 out of 1.5 million is a real good conscensus. You folks are like a cage full of Monkeys with a loaded revolver. Nothing good for the Walmart employess is going to happen but you know you monkeys in the cage will have bad things happen. Go find a real issue to protest about.”
This inspired Charles Moser to point out a minor vocabulary error: “A scab is someone who takes a striking worker’s job. A person who protests your shitty employer is your ally.”
Another anti-Walmart poster, Mike Kolanko, first suggested that the strike might make Walmart go bankrupt (thus implying workers are stupid to strike), then posted a news article claiming the protest will have no effect on Walmart’s bottom line (thus implying workers are stupid to strike).
But most of the posts were from supporters providing updates throughout the day, seeking information, or posting photos of strikers in various cities and states.
“Tucson, AZ; We had close to 50 supporters outside of Walmart @valencia/midvale rds SOLIDARITY Sisters&Brothers!!!!!!!”
“Handed out leaflets and sang songs of solidarity in support of OUR Walmart this morning in Pittsfield [Mass.] with these awesome folks!”
Despite high turnouts surrounding at least some stores, Tifft says Our Walmart has heard no response at all from Walmart itself. “Not at this point,” Tifft said. Before going on strike, “Today I called in, told them I would be back at work on Monday, the next day I’m scheduled to work.”
And what does OUR Walmart hope will happen once Black Friday is over? “I think we’ll see our organization grow. We’re seeing history in the making,” Tifft said. “[Walmart] has been around for 50 years, and nobody has tried this before … when we started, we had only 100 likes on our Facebook page. Now we have over 18,000. I think many associates are waiting to see how strong we are before joining, because they’re afraid of retaliation. I hope the associates who fear get over their fear… I have grandkids. What will the workplace be like for them? I want to be able to tell them, ‘Grandma tried to stand up for you’.”