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Low wage protests target Walmart sales day

by Sebastian Smith
Groups supporting Walmart workers protest working conditions at the company in front of a Walmart Superstore in Secaucus, New Jersey. Walmart, which denies there are any widespread complaints, last week filed a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board to try to block the Black Friday protests.

Protesters targeted Walmart stores across the United States on Friday, the busiest shopping day of the year, accusing the bargain superstore of ripping off its own employees.

The protests were designed to disrupt the Black Friday shopping frenzy after Thursday's Thanksgiving holiday, when deep discounts pull in waves of customers.

About 200 activists outside a huge Walmart in Secaucus, New Jersey chanted against what they called the dark side of the biggest US private employer, which has 1.3 million non-unionized workers, or "associates," as they're called. Critics say the average Walmart hourly wage is a meager $8.81, although the company says the figure is closer to $13.

"Walmart pushes wages down!" they chanted.

"I'm here because they should be paid a working wage, they should be able to buy things on Black Friday, not being forced to work on Thanksgiving," said Barry Kushnir, 43, a New Jersey road maintenance worker.

Protesters included unionized workers, street activists from the Occupy movement, a roller-skating woman in a Marie-Antoinette mini-dress, a faux pastor known for his anti-capitalist campaigns, and a lively brass band.

The protesters did not appear to include any employees from the Walmart outlet, where the doors were open to a steady stream of shoppers, many re-emerging with shopping carts piled high.

Jaclyn Kessel, one of the organizers of the demonstration, said Walmart employees "are afraid of getting fired" and she didn't expect any to come.

However, discontent at Walmart has become unusually visible this year, with strikes and protests planned in more than 100 cities, according to the United Food & Commercial Workers union, or UFCW, which is campaigning for Walmart employees.

In Los Angeles, nine protesters were arrested for blocking an intersection in front of a Walmart in Paramount, local media reported. About 400 people gathered for that protest, the LA Daily News said, citing police estimates.

The main force behind the demonstrations, the Organization United for Respect at Walmart (OUR Walmart), said it was pressuring for "decent pay, regular hours, affordable healthcare and respect."

The powerful UAW auto-workers union also came on board, saying that because of Walmart's size, the company "has enormous power to set the trends not just for the retail and service industries, but for the economy as a whole."

Another prominent supporter was Robert Reich, labor secretary under president Bill Clinton, who saw the debate over conditions at Walmart, owned by the multi-billionaire Walton family, as reflecting deeper problems in US society.

"The widening inequality reflected in the gap between the pay of Walmart workers and the returns to Walmart investors, including the Walton family, haunts the American economy," Reich wrote in a post to his blog titled, "Why You Shouldn't Shop at Walmart on Friday."

Walmart, which denies there are any widespread complaints, last week filed a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board to try to block the Black Friday protests.

On Friday, Walmart downplayed the controversy, saying in a statement that "only 26 protests occurred at stores last night and many of them did not include any Walmart associates."

In addition, Walmart US said it had its "best ever Black Friday events," featuring 1.8 million towels, 1.3 million televisions and 1.3 million dolls sold in the first hours.

In Secaucus, shoppers had to negotiate an increasingly thick crowd of protesters in the entrance, many of whom were dancing to the brass band, watched by a half dozen patient police officers.

Drivers in several passing cars tooted horns in support, but most paid no attention to the disturbance.

Karen Mendoza, 30, expressed sympathy with the protesters as she went into Walmart with her 55-year-old mother, saying that the kind of low-end jobs the store offers are part of an increasingly unforgiving economy.

"With the economy today it's really, really hard to get a job anywhere," she said. "My mother works at a factory, she's been there for 27 years, and they're getting rid of people all the time. Now you're not enjoying work anymore."

The roller skating Marie-Antoinette figure, whose name is Marni Halasa, agreed.

"I'm here to support the low-wage worker. Basically, unless you come from money and have access, there's very little social mobility in America," Halasa, 46, said, before gliding away on her skates.