Wal-Mart's Black Friday Strikes: Are the Workers Already Winning?

Customers shop during Black Friday promotions at a Wal-Mart store in Bentonville, Arkansas Photograph by Gunnar Rathbun/Invision/AP Photo

Wal-Mart Stores workers and activists have a new holiday tradition: On the busiest shopping day of the year, they stage protests against the biggest retailer in the country. For the past two years, OUR Walmart, a union-backed group of employees, has used Black Friday in particular as a time to call for higher wages, more consistent full-time work, and respect on the job. Wal-Mart, which employs more people than any other U.S. company, argues that the protests and walkouts are mere media spectacles involving a few protesters who don’t speak for most of its 1.3 million workers.

Yet in some ways, Wal-Mart has improved its treatment of employees over the past two years. Just don’t expect the company to credit the protesters.

Workers in the retail and fast-food industries have spoken about how hard it is to get by on low wages, especially when they can’t work as much as they would like. A Congressional report, “The Low-Wage Drag on our Economy,” criticized Wal-Mart for relying on public assistance to help its employees make ends meet. Barry Ritholtz, a Bloomberg View columnist, called Wal-Mart a welfare queen, and he wasn’t the only one. Wal-Mart’s program, Access to Open Shifts, which was introduced this spring, seems to address some of these concerns. It lets workers browse the company’s scheduling system for available shifts, even in different departments. If workers want more hours, they should be able to get them.

Was this a response to the protests? That would be an ”inaccurate” characterization, Wal-Mart spokesman Kory Lundberg told the Huffington Post. “Our associates are the best generators of ideas,” he explained. “They’ve been telling us they want to know what opportunities are there in the store. This is one way to bring a little more transparency to the folks in the store to see what’s available.” Wal-Mart, which isn’t having a great year financially, has also admitted that it needs more store employees to keep shelves stocked and checkout lines short.

The retailer also came under pressure to change its policies regarding pregnant employees this year. The National Women’s Law Center filed a complaint with the Equal Opportunity Employment Commission on behalf of a pregnant employee whose supervisor refused to relieve her of duties that included climbing ladders with heavy boxes. Then two Wal-Mart shareholders—employees who are members of OUR Walmart—filed a proposal with the Securities and Exchange Commission requesting that the policy be changed.

Wal-Mart adopted new rules this spring. “Our policy goes above and beyond what the law requires, it is best in class, and it exceeds what other retailers are doing,” Randy Hargrove, a Wal-Mart spokesman, said at the time. When asked to explain the changes, he said it was “the right thing to do for our associates” and allowed that the “shareholder resolution bought more attention to the issue.”

Of course, the biggest issue for workers is their pay. The rallying cry now is $15 an hour. Wal-Mart says the average wage for a full-time associate in its U.S. stores is $12.94 an hour and describes the majority of its workers as full-time (without offering more precise information). Last year, however, about half of Wal-Mart associates made less than $25,000. Come January, Wal-Mart will no longer offer health insurance to employees who work less than an average of 30 hours a week, affecting some 30,000 people. If that doesn’t sound like a lot, it’s because three years ago the retailer cut health benefits for part-timers who work less than 24 hours a week.

So any good news when it comes to wages? Well, Wal-Mart’s new-ish chief executive, Doug McMillon, did say that one day the company would like to pay all its employees more than the federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour. “It is our intention over time that we will be in a situation where we don’t pay minimum wage at all,” he said in October, while also noting that only about 6,000 current employees are paid the minimum. McMillon called the store employees Wal-Mart’s “secret sauce.” And he said: “We have to set up our associates to win. They need us to get some things done so they can.”

Organizers have promised that this year’s protests will be the biggest so far. Wal-Mart remains dismissive: “Perception is not reality in this case,” said Brooke Buchanan, a Wal-Mart spokeswoman. As the protests focus their efforts on Black Friday, the pace of change at Wal-Mart can’t easily be measured by a single day.

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