Wal-Mart union protests fail to deter bargain-seekers

story by Renee Dudley
Bloomberg News

Jamie Walsh faced a Black Friday dilemma: take advantage of Wal-Mart’s deals at the Salem, N.H., store or support union-backed protesters demanding better pay and benefits. In the end, the deals won the day.

Walsh, 42, wearing a sweatshirt from the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 2222, where her late brother-in-law was vice president, said she was aware of the union protests planned at Wal-Mart Stores Inc. locations around the country today. Still, she decided to buy an $89 electric ride-in Jeep, a LeapPad tablet, a dollhouse, a Sony Corp. PlayStation and a $78 flatscreen television.

“It bothers me, but their prices are so good,” said Walsh, who is from Dorchester, Mass., and works as a medical assistant at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

The United Food & Commercial Workers International Union had planned more than 1,000 demonstrations online and at Wal-Mart stores around the country today (Nov. 23) to protest what it says are the retailer’s manipulation of hours and benefits, efforts to keep people from working full time and discrimination against women and minorities.

The protests failed to reduce traffic at the world’s largest retailer. Wal-Mart said today that it had larger crowds than last year and drew about 22 million customers yesterday.

The retailer said in a statement that it has sold more than 1.3 million televisions, 1.3 million dolls and 250,000 bicycles since its promotions began at 8 p.m. yesterday. Wal-Mart said only 26 protests took place at stores last night and fewer than 50 associates participated.

“Only 26 protests occurred at stores last night and many of them did not include any Walmart associates,” Bill Simon, Walmart U.S. president and CEO, said in a statement. “We estimate that less than 50 associates participated in the protest nationwide. In fact, this year, roughly the same number of associates missed their scheduled shift as last year.”

UNION PROTESTS
Wal-Mart rose 1.9% to $70.20 at the most recent market close. The Bentonville-based company’s shares have gained 17% this year.

About 1,000 protesters massed outside a Wal-Mart store in Paramount, Calif., after 7 a.m., and nine were arrested for failing to follow police orders to disperse about five hours later, Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department Captain Mike Parker said in an e-mailed statement.

The protesters had informed the 40 sheriff’s deputies at the scene of their intention to be arrested, and the arrests occurred without incident, Parker said. The scene returned to normal about 20 minutes later, he said.

Activists were bused into one of the union-backed groups’ marquee events, held in Secaucus, N.J. Accompanied by a small band, more than 100 people marched with signs outside the store’s entrance. Workers didn’t join them.

‘SPEAKING UP’
“These people need their jobs,” said Dave Stump, 72, a semi-retired Catholic priest who works in Jersey City. “They’re afraid for their jobs, even though they’re being treated terribly. We’re speaking up for them.”

Marcus Blake, 37, a Boston resident shopping with his 15-year-old son at the Wal-Mart in Salem wasn’t as sympathetic.

“They need to get with the program or get a new job,” said Blake, who works in property management. “People work on the holidays. I’m on call 24 hours.”

One worker walked out of the Wal-Mart in Miami Gardens, Fla.,  said Muhammad Malik, a community activist connected to the union. He organized what he estimated to be about 70 people, including what he said was about 30 Wal-Mart employees, outside that store from about 7:45 p.m. to 9:15 p.m. yesterday.

In Dallas, protesters had been to two stores by 8 p.m., said Janna Pea, another union organizer. Pea said the group protested at the first store for 10 minutes before security kicked them off the property.

SECURITY MEASURES
“We weren’t able to do much,” she said.

The group began protesting in front of the second store as shoppers began filing in. Security forced them leave there, too. The group ended up standing on the side of the road near the entrance to the store’s parking lot, she said.

About a dozen activists from several unions swept through the supercenter in Methuen, Mass., to distribute OUR Walmart leaflets to employees this morning. They left after about 10 minutes when store management took notice.

“The point is to get them into the hands of employees,” said D.J. Cronin, an IBEW membership development organizer.

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The protests take place as the National Labor Relations Board weighs a complaint Wal-Mart filed against the union Nov. 15 accusing it of violating federal labor laws by illegally picketing. The company said the union has tried to force the company to the bargaining table although it does not officially represent its employees.

Wal-Mart asked the board for an investigation and immediate injunction. If the board rules in Wal-Mart’s favor, it would seek an injunction in district court to stop the protests.

On Nov. 20, organizers from the non-profit OUR Walmart fought back by filing their own complaint with the labor board accusing Wal-Mart of intimidating workers. The protesters are demanding more-predictable schedules, less-expensive health-care plans and minimum hourly pay of $13 with the option of working full-time.

Organizers have declined to say how many workers have been involved with the movement. Wal-Mart has about 1.4 million employees and more than 4,500 stores and clubs in the U.S.

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