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Walmart's Black Friday protests, explained

A protester holds up a sign at a recent Walmart Black Friday protest
A protester holds up a sign at a recent Walmart Black Friday protest
Getty Images

On Friday, workers are planning to protest at Walmarts nationwide. If that sounds familiar, it's because the same thing happened last year, and the year before. Black Friday protests at Walmart are becoming a tradition of sorts, but you may not know exactly what they're about. Below is a quick explainer on what is behind the Walmart protests.

1) Who's behind the protests?

A group called OUR Walmart (Organization United for Respect at Walmart) has been organizing the protests. That organization of Walmart workers was itself by the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union, one of the largest labor unions in the US, with around 1.3 million members.

UFCW has a history of trying (unsuccessfully) to unionize at Walmart, as Businessweek has reported. But OUR Walmart is not a union (and the UFCW has said in the past that it is not a precursor to a union). Instead of bargaining and filing grievances, it has worked to make workers' complaints more visible, and big protests are one way of doing that. In addition, UFCW does represent workers at many large chains that are unionized, including Safeway, Albertson's, and Kroger. You could also say these protests are on behalf of UFCW workers nationwide. Protesting not only makes the call for higher wages more visible, but as Walmart is such a huge retailer, its practices put pressure on competitors where UFCW members work.

UFCW anti-Walmart actions long predated the Black Friday protests. In 2005, UFCW founded "Wake Up Walmart," a predecessor organization that criticized pay and working conditions at Walmart.

2) What exactly are the Walmart Black Friday protests?

This is a series of one-day-only protests that started in 2012. This year, OUR Walmart is saying it will be the biggest ever, at 1,600 stores nationwide. The locations of the protests can be found at blackfridayprotests.org. OUR Walmart has also participated in other, non-Black-Friday strikes, though. In October, Walmart workers around the country also protested, demanding $15 hourly pay. Fourteen were arrested outside the Manhattan home of Walmart heiress Alice Walton.

You might hear them referred to as "strikes," but these protests are not strikes in the traditional sense. Like the fast food strikes that have grown increasingly common over the last two years, these are what the Wall Street Journal has called "intermittent strikes: sporadic, but repeated actions in which workers walk out for a relatively short time and then return to work" — the idea being to make a point but without threatening workers' livelihoods. What's more, though the exact numbers are disputed, it seems clear that the majority of protestors are not current Walmart employees.

They do include some workers, but many people who do not work at Walmart are also expected to go to the protests, including "tens of thousands of teachers, voters, members of the clergy, elected officials, civil rights leaders and women's rights activists," according to UFCW.

Walmart

So many bargains! (Getty Images)

3) What are they protesting?

One of the main demands at these strikes is a $15 per hour minimum wage. Once again, if that sounds familiar, it's because it is. This is also the wage that workers at fast food protests nationwide have been demanding at their "intermittent strikes." Originally, OUR Walmart was demanding $25,000, but they recently joined with fast food workers in demanding the higher hourly wage, which translates to roughly $31,200 annually for a full-time worker.

In addition, OUR Walmart is protesting in favor of more consistent scheduling for its workers and more full-time work for them.

4) What does Walmart say about the protests?

It doesn't seem happy. In a call with Vox, Walmart spokesperson Brooke Buchanan dismissed the protests as a product of labor unions and not Walmart workers, who are not unionized in the US.

Walmart and OUR Walmart have always clashed over the numbers of workers involved. In 2012, Walmart claimed only 50 workers were involved, while OUR Walmart said it was around 500. Likewise, Walmart has said that by its count, only around 50 current Walmart employees participated last year.

A spokesman for OUR Walmart disputes that, saying in an email to Vox that "hundreds of workers went on strike last year" and adding that "Walmart's report is offensive to many brave workers who took this action."

Though Walmart has dismissed the protests in public statements, it has also clearly taken them seriously in the past. In 2012, the store tried to prevent the strikes by preemptively filing a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board, a move that the New York Times said "reflect[ed] how seriously the company has come to view a group that it had once dismissed as a nuisance."

Walmart

A protester advocates for higher wages. (Getty Images)

5) How bad are working conditions at Walmart?

According to Walmart, only 6,000 of its roughly 1.4 million workers earn the federal minimum wage of $7.25 per hour. Of course, there are 23 states, plus the District of Columbia, whose minimum wages are above the federal minimum, so there are likely many more Walmart associates who earn a minimum wage of some sort. Buchanan did not have numbers for the number of workers who earn any minimum wage. All told, all full-time hourly associates — that is, those working 34 or more hours per week — earn $12.94 per hour, she said, and together, full- and part-time workers earn $11.81 per hour, though she did not give figures on how much part-time workers average per hour (and 30,000 of those workers will lose health insurance after this year).

But according to number reported by Bloomberg in 2013, a majority of Walmart's hourly workers earn $25,000 or less per year. (Working 34 hours at $12.94 per hour, incidentally, will bring in around $23,000 per year.)

Walmart has long been at the center of the wage debate in the US, not just because of protests like these, but because it is the nation's largest employer. Most recently, Sen. Elizabeth Warren has made an example of the retailer in her push for raising the minimum wage.

High-profile incidents like a 2013 canned food drive one Ohio Walmart held for its own associates have also helped to underscore the plight of the store's low-wage workers.

Workers' complaints aren't just about pay; it's also about how the store has reacted to its workers after past protests. In a case that opened in June, the National Labor Relations Board alleges that Walmart retaliated against 60 workers who participated in protests, including 19 workers who were fired.

In addition, Walmart has discouraged unionizing. Early this year, activist group Anonymous leaked a PowerPoint presentation that the store uses to teach managers how to discourage organizing.

6) Do these protests work?

They do direct a lot of bad press at Walmart. In that 2012 complaint to the NLRB, the store said the protests disrupted business. And OUR Walmart has also claimed some victories from the protests, including Walmart's recent changes allowing workers to more easily schedule their hours (the store, however, claims this was not in response to any protests). Protestors have also counted among their victories the store's recent decisions to raise all of its workers' pay above the federal minimum and better accommodate pregnant workers.

There's also a larger reason to protest Walmart in particular — it's gargantuan. It has around 1.4 million workers in the US, meaning it employs nearly 1 percent of all US workers and 9 percent of all US retail-industry workers. And as the nation's largest grocer, it is the recipient of nearly one-fifth of all food stamp dollars. A change in Walmart's policies, some advocates reason, could create changes industrywide.

That said, the protests haven't exactly deterred people from their holiday shopping. Last year, despite the biggest-ever Black Friday protest, Walmart announced it had 22 million customers that day.