America’s biggest retailer may be in for an unexpectedly painful holiday season. Protesting low wages, spiking health care premiums, and alleged retaliation from management, Wal-Mart Stores (WMT) workers have started to walk off the job this week. First, on Wednesday, about a dozen workers in Wal-Mart’s distribution warehouses in Southern California walked out, followed the next day by 30 more from six stores in the Seattle area.
The workers, who are part of a union-backed employee coalition called Making Change at Wal-Mart, say this is the beginning of a wave of protests and strikes leading up to next week’s Black Friday. A thousand store protests are planned in Chicago, Dallas, Miami, Oklahoma, Louisiana, Milwaukee, Los Angeles, Minnesota, and Washington, D.C., the group says.
In a conference call with reporters on Thursday, workers who were either planning to strike or already striking explained their situation. “We have to borrow money from each other just to make it to work,” said Colby Harris, who earns $8.90 an hour after having worked at a Wal-Mart in Lancaster, Tex., for three years. “I’m on my lunch break right now, and I have two dollars in my pocket. I’m deciding whether to use it to buy lunch or to hold on to it for next week.” He said the deduction from his bimonthly pay check for health-care costs is scheduled to triple in January. In 2013, Wal-Mart plans to scale back its contributions to workers’ health-care premiums, which are expected to rise between 8 percent and 36 percent. Many employees will forgo coverage, Reuters reports.
Sara Gilbert, a manager who was striking in Seattle, called in on her cell phone: “I work full-time for one of the richest companies in the world, and my kids get state health insurance and are on food stamps,” she said.
Along with Target (TGT) and Sears (SHLD), Wal-Mart has plans to open retail stores at 8 p.m. on Thanksgiving night. Employees said they weren’t given a choice as to whether they would work on Thanksgiving and were told to do so with little warning. “They don’t care about family,” said Charlene Fletcher, a Wal-Mart associate in Duarte, Calif. She said she is expected to report for work at 3 p.m. on Thanksgiving Day. The workers said that when they complain about scheduling and other problems, management cuts their hours or fires people.
With 1.4 million U.S. workers, the Bentonville (Ark.)-based company is the U.S.’s largest private employer. For years, Wal-Mart has been targeted by unions and workers complaining about low wages, scant benefits, and retaliation against those who speak out.
Until now, the company has crushed attempts by employees to organize. So it’s unusual that Making Change at Wal-Mart has been able to organize a number of strikes—the first in the company’s history, they say. The first strike occurred in Los Angeles in October. That strike spread to 28 stores in 12 states, organizers say.
In an e-mail, Wal-Mart spokesman Kory Lundberg called the strike “just another exaggerated publicity campaign aimed at generating headlines to mislead” the retailer’s customers and employees. “The fact is, these ongoing tactics being orchestrated by the UFCW are unlawful and we will act to protect our associates and customers from this ongoing illegal conduct,” he wrote, referring to the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union.
The workers intend for next week’s protests to be much bigger. They say their goal is not to shame the company, but to improve conditions. “Wal-Mart needs to know,” said Harris, “that if we didn’t want to work with them, we would have quit.”
Yet the strikes—timed to coincide with the holiday shopping rush—are clearly intended to put pressure on the company during the busiest time of the year, when Wal-Mart most needs its employees. Holiday cheer is a tough sell if your workers are picketing in the parking lot.