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Black Friday Brings Renewed Call For Better Wages at Walmart

Some workers at the retail giant have fasted for two weeks in the lead-up to the biggest buying frenzy of the year in order to highlight poverty and hunger faced by low-paid employees.

by Liz Fields
Nov 27 2015, 3:35pm

Photo by Muhammed Bilal Kenasari/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

As Americans descended on retail stores en masse for the biggest shopping event of the year, Walmart workers and their supporters staged a series of strikes and protests across the country to demand minimum wages from America's largest employer — and even requested food for the chain's most underpaid employees.

For the fourth year in a row, workers picketed outside the retail giant that brings in some $16 billion in profits each year. This year, the protests formed part of the Fast for 15 campaign, involving 15 days of actions and fasting that culminated in Black Friday protests pushing for a $15 minimum wage.

In cities like New York, Washington DC, Minneapolis, and Oakland, workers rallied outside Walmart stores and family estates belonging to the retailer's owners, the Walton family, who are collectively worth some $150 billion. Some held signs reading "Walmart workers are hungry," "Living wage for all," and "$15 and full time."

Other labor actions this week included a mass food drive for underpaid workers over the Thanksgiving holiday. The "Give Back Friday" campaign organized by Making Change at Walmart, which last year planned the biggest Black Friday protests ever across the retailer's 1600 stores, kicked off Tuesday and involved 1,000 food collection events to help feed workers in need.

Related: Workers at Nationwide 'Fight for $15' Rallies Demand Higher Minimum Wages

Walmart previously came under fire in 2013 after one of its stores in Ohio organized its own food donation bins to help feed "associates in need." This year, the retailer raised the wage floor to $9 and hour, and announced plans to begin offering $10 an hour starting in February.

But representatives of the chain's 1.4 million workers across the US say that combined with arbitrary shifts and rising living costs, the raises are not enough. Based on Walmart's own 34 "full-time" workweek schedule, a worker earning $9 would bring in less than $16,000 a year.

"While shoppers get ready to cook their Thanksgiving feasts and take advantage of Black Friday deals, Wal-Mart is still putting profits over their own workers who are unable to buy basic groceries because of low wages and reduced hours," Tyfani Faulkner, a former Wal-Mart worker in Sacramento and organizer of the Fast for $15 campaign, told the Courier Journal.

But Walmart dismissed the protests and picketing as "stunts" that are "paid for and organized" by labor unions.

"False attacks and media stunts from the unions have become an annual tradition this time of year," said Walmart spokesman, Brian Nick. "We will continue to focus on our commitment to invest $2.7 billion over this year and next in wages, education and training for our associates."

Nick also said that, "the vast majority of people aren't current Walmart associates" and that "our average full time hourly associate earns more than $13 an hour in addition to the opportunity for quarterly cash bonuses" and other benefits.

The fight for a $15 federal minimum wage has been at the center of ongoing organized protests by workers in the fast food, retail, construction, and other industries. Thousands have turned out at demonstrations and walked off the job this year to demand living wages.

At times, the Fight for $15 protests have overlapped with other activist campaigns including Black Lives Matter and the Occupy movements. Walmart protest organizers took to Facebook to advertise actions like a parallel Black Lives Matter rally to boycott Black Friday in New York.

The federal minimum wage is currently $7.25, but some cities and states have instituted higher wage floors. In June 2014, Seattle's city council approved a $15 an hour minimum wage.

Follow Liz Fields on Twitter: @lianzifields