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Social Media-Fueled Black Friday Walmart Protests Becoming A Holiday Tradition, But Management Is Fighting Back

BY Sarah Lai Stirland | Tuesday, November 26 2013

AssociateVoices.org is a tool created by Making Change At Walmart to enable crowdsourced reporting

It's early on a Tuesday morning in San Francisco, and Jim Hightower, the folksy left-leaning former agriculture commissioner of Texas, is beaming through on the local public radio station with a scathing commentary on Wal-Mart and its tight-fisted ways.

"Who says Wal-Mart is not big hearted?" he asks. "Just look at the chain's outlet in Canton, Ohio, where management has set up bins for food donations, asking people to give generously to the poor, who otherwise will not have a Thanksgiving dinner. But the bins are not for customers – they're tucked back in the employees-only area. Walmart's Thanksgiving food drive is for its own employees, beseeching low-wage workers to donate to even lower-wage workers who can't afford a family dinner on this national day of thanks."

Hightower's salvo about the mega-corporation's "moral outrage," was the latest echo of a week-long media blitz instigated by the non-union group OUR Walmart, a nationwide group of company employees who have been fighting in various forms for better pay and treatment for at least the past six years. One of its members had snapped a shot of the photo and shared it with the promise of anonymity from the union-affiliated Making Change at Walmart, a group backed by the United Food and Commercial Workers Union (UFCW.)

The photo ended up in the Cleveland Plain Dealer, from whence it went viral. Every national news outlet ran the story, and actor Ashton Kutcher added fuel to the fire (and another round of news stories and analysis) when he scolded Walmart for putting its profits before people. Walmart then further dug itself deeper into the hole when it defended the practice as its associates rallying around each other (rather than answering the question of why its workers are not paid enough to not have to rely on food drives during a national holiday.)

From a digital labor organizer's perspective, it was pure gold. Once again, like last year, the story broke through the usual holiday chatter about Black Friday consumer deals, and instead brought attention to something the organizers want more people to focus on: The impact that Wal-Mart's low-wage business model is having on the broader economy.

Both UFCW and Our Walmart have planned another round of Black Friday protests this year. This time, they're scheduled to happen at approximately 1,500 locations in the United States. Wal-Mart runs a total of 4,786 stores in this country.

Organizers provided would-be protestors three different options for picking a location: The UFCW publicized its planned Black Friday protests through e-mails and social media. Activists and concerned local citizens then went to Make Change at Wal-Mart's web site and adopted stores at which to demonstrate against low wages and inadequate work conditions. They also offered associates the option of contacting Making Change at Walmart organizers both in person, or through Associatevoices.org. Those organizers promised to keep those individuals' contact information confidential.

Despite the UFCW's efforts, and the media attention, the members of OUR Walmart and UFCW's Making Change at Wal-Mart are engaged in a bitter and uncertain fight against the company's top decision-makers. The National Labor Relations Board on Monday publicly confirmed that its investigations had found that the giant retailer had unlawfully retaliated against the workers who had protested in several states around the country. As a result, it is ready to sue the company unless it works out a settlement with those workers. For its part, Wal-Mart denied that it had behaved illegally, and vowed to defend itself.

Two of those protestors who were fired, according to Wal-Mart Associate Janet Sparks, worked at her store in Baker, Louisiana. Sparks spoke to techPresident last year about her concerns about the working conditions at the store.

In a follow-up interview this week, she said that she ultimately was the only protestor to walk out on work on last Black Friday.

She chalks her colleagues' recalcitrance up to fear. However, six of them decided to join her in a strike action and protest in June when they travelled up to the company's headquarters in Bentonville, Arkansas. Two of those six ended up getting fired, she said. They were among those who filed a complaint with the NLRB, and who were vindicated in the NLRB's findings issued Monday.

For her part, Sparks says that she was offered a management position on the condition that she stop organizing. She declined the offer, saying that she wants to restore Wal-Mart to the place it once was -- a decent place to work. Wal-Mart's public relations department did not respond to a query about the complaints against the company.

In public, Wal-Mart has downplayed the significance of the UCFW and OUR Walmart-led protests, which have been going on all year. An official last year noted that only 50 members of staff had participated in last year's Thanksgiving demonstrations, and that the rest were professional protestors. The company's Director of Social Strategy Umang Shah continued with that line on Twitter this Monday when he Tweeted out a link to a Townhall piece written by a public relations executive slamming the UFCW's plans. He also linked to an Examiner piece on the fact that the UFCW 'paid' protestors with $50 gift cards.

"The idea that Walmart, as the second-largest employer in the United States, with 1.4 million employees, with enormous impact on local communities, that those local communities don’t have the right to participate in demonstrating against one of the key players in our economy and our democracy, I would very much challenge that," said Marianne Manilov, co-founder and co-director of the Engage Network.

Walmart is the largest employer in the United States --by some estimates, it employs one out of every 10 retail workers. It employs twice as many as the staff of the U.S. Postal Service, and in 2012, its revenues amounted to more than $469 billion, some of it coming from its growing overseas operations. So its business operations have a significant impact beyond its own employees.

The protests are also coming amidst a backdrop of a growing national discussion about the stagnant economic state of the middle class, and what to do about it.

For its part, Wal-Mart has also embarked on an aggressive social media campaign of its own to counter UFCW's online messaging. Wal-Mart's campaign features dozens of employees testifying on behalf of the company, and how well they've done for themselves. (The company's newly-announced CEO Doug McMillon himself started working at Wal-Mart as a teenager, and continued to work there while he pursued a business degree.)

Shah himself calls himself an associate and has organized a modest Thunderclap campaign on behalf of Wal-Mart. (Meanwhile, Making Change at Wal-Mart has its own campaign, here.)

Walmart has 828 supporters, with a low goal of 250 supporters set. Making Change At Walmart has 1,140, which is 95 percent of the supporter goal it set for itself of 1,200.

Manilov has been working with a larger coalition of citizens and progressive groups to organize the Black Friday protests.

"I think everyone believes that so Walmart goes, so goes the rest of our local and global economy," she said.