A total of 42 Walmart workers and allies were arrested today in New York and Washington, DC at two protests directed at the company, which employees say is "robbing them of a fair wage."
The workers were some of the employees at 1,695 Walmart stores across the US who have signed a petition addressed to their employers demanding that they raise their wage to $15 an hour and commit to providing consistent, full-time work. They have promised massive nationwide protests on Black Friday should the company ignore the demands.
Members of OUR Walmart, a group of company employees, took the petition directly to Walmart's owners — the Walton family — on Thursday afternoon, rallying in front of the Walton Family Foundation in Washington, DC, and by the New York City apartment of heiress Alice Walton.
Petitioners have argued that the Waltons are driving income inequality in the country — noting that Walmart ranked up $16 billion in profits in 2013, and that the family's worth some $144 billion, while a majority of the company's 1.3 million employees live in near-poverty.
They also complained about their part-time status, which excludes them from benefits, and their erratic schedules, which make it difficult to hold down other jobs or care for family.
"I've worked at Walmart for four years and most of that time has been part-time, with a schedule that fluctuates from week to week," Tyfani Faulkner, a customer service manager at a California store, said on a call with reporters on Thursday. "Some weeks I'll be lucky with 32 hours, others I'll only get 28… Every single day I worry about getting enough hours to pay rent and pay bills."
But a spokesman for the company dismissed those claims as the effort of a union that does not officially represent Walmart's employees, and said that the company's associates "understand the unparalleled opportunities that we provide."
"I don't know who exactly is delivering [the petition] but what we see every time when this union group holds these demonstrations, the vast majority of the people there are not affiliated with Walmart in any way," Kory Lundberg, a spokesman for the company, told VICE News. "Walmart doesn't have any locations in New York City so perhaps that's the reason why the workers this group is talking about don't have access to career advancement, competitive wages, quarterly bonuses, or even their schedule three weeks in advance. If they worked at Walmart they would."
"This OUR Walmart group is owned, controlled, funded, dictated to by the United Food and Commercial Workers Union," he added.
Organizers said "many" of those arrested today were Walmart employees. Among them was Cantare Davunt, a customer service manager at a Minnesota store, who talked to reporters before trying to "hand deliver" the petition to Alice Walton.
"Even with my recent promotion, paying rent is a monthly struggle. I'm paid only $10.10 an hour, that's about $322 a week, or $15,000 a year," Davunt said on a conference call hours before her arrest. "I'm pretty frugal but still I am constantly deciding which bill isn't absolutely necessary."
Davunt said she skips on the electricity during the summer, has gone months without paying her phone bill, and got behind payments on her car, which was eventually repossessed.
"I have to take public transportation for three hours so I can get to work," she said. "One week after I paid rent I had only $6 left over for groceries."
"We can't live and work like this any longer, and we shouldn't have to when we work for the largest employer in the country, run by the richest family in the country," she added. "For the majority of Walmart workers, as many as 825,000 of us, our pay is less than $25,000 a year."
Speaking after an investor conference on Wednesday, Walmart CEO Doug McMillon told reporters the company planned to do away with minimum wage — a promising sign that pressure on them is working, labor advocates said, though a largely symbolic move, as only about 6,000 of Walmart's employees make the federal minimum wage, which is $7.25 an hour.
"It is our intention over time that we will be in a situation where we don't pay minimum wage at all," McMillon said.
Instead, the company's average full-time hourly wage is $12.92. But some of the workers petitioning Walmart pushed back, saying that many make only a few cents more than $7.25 and that thousands of Walmart associated are not employed full-time, which also excludes them from insurance and benefits.
"When you actually look at the numbers of what I see at my store, some people will make 20 cents more than minimum wage," Davunt said.
Workers — mostly women — also complained of facing pressure to scan as many items as possible an hour, being forced to cut their breaks short, and having to spend most of their income on babysitters when put on weekend or evening shifts at the last minute.
Lundberg said that the average hourly wage for both full and part time employees is $11.83 per hour, and that a "majority" of Walmart's employees are full-time. He also questioned OUR Walmart's facts, saying that company employees get three-week notice on their schedules, as opposed to most retailers' "two days." He added that the group has a "tendency when they release numbers to not be very accurate and not be very straightforward."
But some see the Walmart CEO's comments on minimum wage on Wednesday, however symbolic, as a sign of success.
"Those comments were a huge shift, and I think we're all hopeful that that can go somewhere," said Dan Schlademan, director of Making Change at Walmart, a campaign which claims to want to challenge the company "to help rebuild our economy and strengthen working families."
The group said it repeatedly requested to meet with the company's leadership. "We would love to sit down and have a real conversation about how to make this company a better place," Schlademan said. "Unfortunately today Walmart has not accepted that request."
The push for a $15 minimum wage has been gaining momentum across the country, spearheaded by the initiative of fast food workers — with the support of the Service Employees International Union — but quickly resonating with low-wage workers across industries, including retail.
"The call for $15 per hour has only gotten stronger since fast-food workers first went on strike nearly two years ago," Janet Lopez, a Los Angeles McDonald's worker and member of the movement, said in a statement in solidarity with Walmart workers. "Our nation's biggest cities — New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles — are considering minimum wage increases that would put workers on a path to $15. With Walmart workers now standing up for $15, it is clear that this movement is growing, and that we're not going away."
Some see the struggle as one that goes beyond wages, and aims to tackle the growing inequality in the country — the highest since the Great Depression. Income inequality in the US has been rising steadily since the 1970s, but in 2012 it reached and surpassed levels recorded in 1928, when the top 1 percent of families in the country received 23.9 percent of all pretax income, while the bottom 90 percent received 50.7 percent.
"When one family — the Waltons — hoard 43 percent of the wealth of society, we not only have an economic crisis of inequality, we have a deep moral crisis," Kim Bobo, director of Interfaith Worker Justice, a labor advocacy group that has backed OUR Walmart's petition said. "Walmart's hoarding and stinginess is wrong."
The net worth of the Walton family is greater than the wealth held by 43 percent of American families, combined.
Bobo's group has promised to stage prayer vigils on Black Friday, November 28, along protests planned by workers at Walmart stores across the country. Similar protests have taken place for the last few years — with some ending in arrests.
But Lundberg, who said Walmart has not yet read the petition, dismissed the promise for protests.
"As we saw the last two black Fridays, this union group will make big promises but fail to deliver," he said. "If the last two years are any indication, our associates are gonna be busy on Thursday and Friday taking care of customers, helping customers get their holiday shopping off to a great start."
Follow Alice Speri on Twitter:@alicesperi