Protests greet shoppers at Wal-Marts nationwide
PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) — Wal-Mart workers and supporters marched in protest at stores nationwide Thursday and Friday, blasting the wages, benefits and treatment of employees at the world's largest retailer.
The efforts seemed to do little to keep shoppers away though — Wal-Mart Stores Inc. said it was its best Black Friday ever.
In Paramount, Calif., authorities arrested nine people, including three Wal-Mart employees, for blocking a busy street outside a store there. Sheriff's Capt. Mike Parker said they were cited and released on misdemeanor charges.
At its height, authorities said, the Paramount protest drew about 1,000 people.
"A lot more people showed up than I anticipated, but that just shows you the kind of support we have," said Wal-Mart employee Carlton Smith, who added he was one of 19 store employees taking part. "We have a common interest in making this great company better."
Several hundred demonstrators marched into the street shortly before noon, Parker said, but almost all followed deputies' orders to return to the sidewalk. He said the nine taken into custody told deputies beforehand they planned to be arrested and didn't offer any resistance.
In Lakewood, Colo., shoppers hesitated as they passed dozens of protesters outside a Wal-Mart but entered without incident. Some protesters held signs playing off of the retailing giant's corporate slogan, "Live better," accusing the company of corporate greed and underpaying its workers.
"This is the way you get a fair shake. You've got to fight for it. You've always had to," said protester Charlie May, of the Industrial Workers of the World labor organization.
A union-backed group called OUR Walmart has said that it is holding an estimated 1,000 protests in 46 states. The exact number is unclear. Wal-Mart has refuted that estimate, saying the figure is grossly exaggerated and that the protests involved few of its own employees.
A number of demonstrations and walk-outs occurred last week at stores but were scheduled to culminate on one of the year's busiest shopping days.
OUR Walmart, made up of current and former Wal-Mart employees, was formed in 2010 to press the company for better working conditions.
The retailer filed an unfair labor practice charge with the National Labor Relations Board last week against the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union. The company said that the demonstrations organized by OUR Walmart threatened to disrupt its business and intimidate customers and associates.
Wal-Mart said roughly 50 employees participated in the events Thursday and a "few dozen" took part Friday. Company spokesman Dan Fogleman said the number of associates who missed their shifts during the two days of events was 60 percent lower than last year.
"It was proven last night — and again today — that the OUR Walmart group doesn't speak for the 1.3 million Wal-Mart associates," the company said in a statement.
The union group estimated that "hundreds" of employees participated nationwide.
Victoria Martinez, 29, marched in front of the store in Paramount on Black Friday. The Wal-Mart photo department employee worked her shift on Thanksgiving but skipped work Friday to "speak out." She said the company shows a lack of respect for employees, noting that she faced retaliation by local managers after speaking out about problems during an open discussion sponsored by the head office.
"I believe that when I started at this company, it was great," said Martinez, who has worked for Wal-Mart for seven years. "They've taken away everything that is great."
Wal-Mart for many years has faced intense scrutiny over its wage and benefit policies and treatment of its workers. Fogleman says that the company provides some of the best jobs in the retail industry and that its wages and benefits typically meet or exceed those of competitors. The retailer maintains that it has many long-term employees and that its turnover rate is below the industry average.
The company, based in Bentonville, Ark., operates 10,400 stores in 27 countries.
Associated Press writers Robert Jablon in Los Angeles, John Rogers in Paramount, Calif., and Peter Banda in Lakewood, Colo., contributed to this report.