One current and two former workers from Wal-Mart Stores Inc. (WMT) were arrested on charges of disorderly conduct while trying to deliver a petition demanding better working conditions at the chain to the Manhattan office of a company board director, police and organizers said.
The protest outside the Fifth Avenue office of Wal-Mart board member Chris Williams, chief executive officer of The Williams Capital Group investment bank, was one of at least 15 demonstrations against the retailer today in cities from Boston to San Francisco, protest organizers said.
The workers involved in the demonstrations had given the world’s largest retailer a deadline of Labor Day, on Sept. 2, to reinstate employees they said had been wrongly fired or disciplined after protests earlier this year. The group also called on the company to publicly commit to improving jobs and offering higher wages.
“They’re setting the standard in the retail industry by having a poverty wage,” Colby Harris, a 23-year-old Dallas resident who works at the Wal-Mart store in Lancaster, Texas, said in a telephone interview. Harris said his supervisors disciplined him multiple times for participating in earlier protests, telling him he violated the company’s attendance policy. He planned to demonstrate in Dallas today.
The workers and activists, organized by union-backed OUR Walmart, called today’s protests its largest demonstration against the retailer since Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving. Last year’s protests didn’t harm Wal-Mart’s traffic during the national shopping day, as the company said it had larger crowds than the year before.
‘Just a Show’
“It’s just a show,” Kory Lundberg, a Wal-Mart spokesman, said in a telephone interview yesterday. “Many of them don’t work at Wal-Mart or are affiliated with the company in any way.”
About a quarter of the retailer’s almost 1 million hourly workers have been with the company for 10 years or more, Lundberg said. The average wage for full-time hourly workers is $12.83, he said.
Since the company’s annual shareholders’ meeting in June, Wal-Mart has disciplined about 80 workers and fired about 20, according to OUR Walmart, or Organization United for Respect at Walmart. The group said it has filed more than 100 Unfair Labor Practice charges against the Bentonville, Arkansas-based retailer with the National Labor Relations Board.
Barbara Gertz, 45, who stocks shelves at the Wal-Mart store in Aurora, Colorado, was one of the employees to be disciplined after she demonstrated at the June shareholders’ meeting. Last week, Wal-Mart’s home office ordered her Aurora supervisor to reverse the disciplinary action, saying Gertz’s strike was “protected,” she said in a telephone interview yesterday.
Lundberg said he was unaware of communication between home office and Gertz’s store. He said the personal discussion she had with her supervisor about her June absences didn’t count as formal discipline.
Gertz, who demonstrated in Manhattan today and was one of the three to be arrested, yesterday called the company’s decision to overturn the disciplinary action “a huge victory.”
“Wal-Mart is having to start to listen to associates and to OUR Walmart,” she said.
The petition Gertz and the other demonstrators brought to Williams’ office called on Wal-Mart to provide a minimum salary of $25,000 for full-time work, reinstate workers who were fired for demonstrating and agree to stop retaliation against workers. More than 200,000 people signed it, organizers said. Williams, a director since 2004, is on the board’s executive and audit committees.
Yesterday, Williams’ assistant said the board member was traveling, saying he was expected to be in the office today. Williams didn’t return a message seeking comment.
Led by a seven-member band, the protesters in New York chanted “Wal-Mart, Wal-Mart, you’re no good. Treat your workers like you should.” About two dozen police officers monitored the sidewalk protests by about three dozen demonstrators.
The protesters, some wearing green shirts with the OUR Walmart symbol and others wearing yellow shirts from the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union, didn’t gain entry to Williams’ office. Five of them formed a human chain outside the revolving door to the building. Three of them were arrested on charges of disorderly conduct, Timothy Beaudette, an inspector from the New York Police Department, said in an interview.
Following the arrests, the New York group planned to protest outside a Wal-Mart store on Long Island.
Wal-Mart employs 36,000 people in New York state, Lundberg said, “but they fly people in from out of state to get arrested. It shows you who is behind it.”
OUR Walmart, which formed two years ago, is holding the protests a week after fast-food workers walked off the job in more than 50 U.S. cities to pressure companies including McDonald’s Corp. and Wendy’s Co. to raise wages. The non-union fast-food workers were demanding the right to organize and wages of $15 an hour, more than double the federal minimum of $7.25. They now make $9 an hour on average, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
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