Walmart employees and their supporters are planning to disrupt Black Friday shopping and demand full-time work and a higher minimum wage at more than 1,600 stores across the country today. This is the third consecutive year such a protest has taken place, as the low-wage workers movement grows bigger and bolder.
From coast to coast, members of OUR Walmart — the group of company employees behind the protests — staged demonstrations to call out their employer for its exploitative policies and retaliation against labor organizing.
In Denver, workers and supporters dressed like Santa Claus and his elves prepared to deliver a bag of coal to Walmart, while workers in New Jersey were setting up a symbolic "recall food bin" — where charity for company associates living in poverty can be deposited.
In Los Angeles, where earlier this month workers staged the first-ever "sit down" strike in the company's history, workers went on a 24-hour hunger strike to protest the company "starving" them, organizers said. Some employees of the company, a majority of whom make less than $25,000 a year, have accused the company of making them "go hungry" and are documenting their struggle on a "Walmart Hunger Games" Tumblr page.
"Many of us are living in deep poverty and going hungry because the Waltons won't pay us a fair wage," Sandra Sok, who walked off her job at a Phoenix store, said in a statement released by campaign organizers. "When my coworkers speak out about these issues, the company tries to silence us. For all of my brothers and sisters who have experienced illegal threats, I am on strike."
Sok, who has worked at Walmart for nine years, makes $400 every two weeks.
In a media call earlier this month, organizers promised that this year's Black Friday protests would be the "biggest" to date — galvanized by the successes of the minimum wage movement, which has already won its $15 an hour goal in several cities across the country.
But Kory Lundberg, a spokesman for the company, told VICE News the protests failed to live up to the hype. OUR Walmart says workers and community supporters protested at 1,448 stores last year but Walmart claims it was less than 300.
"Even with more associates scheduled to work than ever, fewer associates called out absent over the past day than we see on a typical day," he wrote in an email today. "That tells us our associates are excited to be there for our customers at this special time, and they are not joining in made-for-TV demonstrations in any meaningful way."
Lundberg also accused protest organizers of boosting their numbers with supporters who are not actually Walmart employees.
"The crowds are mostly made up of paid union demonstrators and they are not representative of our 1.3 million associates across the country," he said. "This is our busiest time of the year. We're excited to kickoff the holiday season and are focused on serving our customers. It's unfortunate that this group attempts to disrupt the holiday spirit to push their agenda."
Following protests last month, Lundberg also told VICE News 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. The company operates more than 4,100 stores in the US.
But members of OUR Walmart claim that the company — which brings in $16 billion in annual profits and whose owners the Walton family are worth some $150 billion — can afford to pay its workers $15 an hour.
Walmart, which is the largest private employer in the country, is only the latest target of a growing movement demanding what low-wage workers call a "living wage." While some politicians including President Barack Obama have begun debating raising the minimum wage across the board to $10.10, low-wage workers' bolder demand for $15 has quickly become the rallying cry for a movement that has already spread across industries, from fast food to retail.
These workers have begun to redefine Black Friday shopping — the symbol of American consumerism — into an emblem of the country's deepening financial inequality.
"The Black Friday rallies and demonstrations represent a dramatic escalation of the growing protest movement among employees of America's largest private employer," Peter Dreier, a professor of politics and urban and environmental policy at Occidental College wrote in a recent op-ed. "It is likely that future generations will look at these Walmart protests as a major turning point that helped move the nation in a new direction, similar to the sit-down strikes among Flint auto workers in 1937, the Woolworth lunch-counter sit-ins by civil-rights activists in 1960, and the first Earth Day in 1970, which jump-started the environmental movement."
Walmart walkouts, sit-ins, and rallies actually started earlier this week, with many of them connecting the labor fight with the struggle against police brutality spearheaded by the Ferguson protests.
"From Ferguson to Bentonville and across the country, Black youth, Walmart workers and allies are self-organizing to fight back against anti-Black police violence and demand respect and dignity at work," Rashad Robinson, executive director of Color of Change, a civil rights group, said in a statement connecting the two movements. "While it's unacceptable that we live in a world where co-workers must band together to start charity food drives to feed themselves and where Black children can be left dead in the streets at the hands of the police; it's inspiring to hear so many people speak truth to power."
"On Black Friday, thousands will take to the streets and to Walmart to demand better lives," he added. "In this new age of participation, the movements for economic justice and police accountability are indivisible because they both exist in the lived experiences of Black people who are confronting the systems of power which have brutalized our communities."
The push for a $15 minimum wage has gained momentum across the country since fast food workers launched the initiative with the support of the Service Employees International Union.
"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 last month. "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."
Follow Alice Speri on Twitter: @alicesperi