Many Black Friday shoppers will be well-fed after Thanksgiving as they elbow their way through malls and shopping centers, but some Walmart workers will be decidedly less nourished. More than 100 Walmart workers plan to fast for 15 days before going on strike and holding protests on Black Friday, according to the labor group Our Walmart.
The organization, which says it doesn't disclose membership numbers, has led Black Friday walkouts and demonstrations at a number of stores in recent years. Our Walmart also prodded the company to institute a recent wage hike, bringing base pay to $9 an hour.
But workers say that wage bump -- which is slated to reach $10 next year -- has not solved all their workplace grievances: many want a base pay of $15 an hour and guaranteed 40-hour workweeks.
Jasmine Dixon, 26, is a Walmart employee with two toddlers. "I've had to forgo meals just so my boys will have enough to eat," Dixon told reporters. "If it weren't for government aid and food stamps, I don't know what I'd do."
Average pay for a Walmart sales associate is $9.32 an hour, according to Glassdoor.com, an independent website where current and former workers post reviews about their employment at certain companies. (Walmart says the average store employee makes $13 an hour. The figure, however, does not include the wages of part-time workers.)
Other than the relatively low pay rate, the struggle to attain full-time status continues to be a major source of frustration for Walmart workers. In recent conversations with International Business Times, employees unaffiliated with the Our Walmart campaign said they want to be working more hours every week but the company bars them from doing so. Under the current system, part-timers can work no more than 34 hours a week.
In a few cases, the recent pay hike appeared to aggravate that problem. As Bloomberg reported this summer, executives instructed some store managers to keep costs in check by keeping track of the hours they assigned workers each week.
An employee at a store in Minnesota described staffing shortages and ongoing retention problems: “I have seen us have a good seven cashiers one week and then we are back down to three cashiers for the next three months,” the worker told IBT, speaking on the condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation. “The situation is bad with there always being shortages in the deli, front end and auto."
Participants of the fast, which beings on Friday, includes hundreds of non-worker sympathizers. Some of them plan to consume only liquid; others plan to follow more moderate diets, according to organizers. On Monday, 15 fasters will gather outside the Manhattan estate of Alice Walton --heiress of the Walmart fortune and daughter of company's founder, Sam Walton-- where they plan to spend the week in protest.
Walmart brushed aside the looming fasts as a public relations stunt.
“False attacks and media stunts from the unions have become an annual tradition this time of year," says spokesman Brian Nick. "Walmart will continue to focus on our commitment to invest $2.7 billion over this year and next in wages, education and training for our associates. We’re thankful for our associates and the millions of customers we’ll serve this holiday season.”
Only a small fraction of the company’s 1.4 million-member U.S. workforce have any ties to Our Walmart. But since launching in 2012, the group has clashed repeatedly with the retail giant. Last year, a judge ruled that managers in California illegally disciplined workers for going on strike and threatened to close a store if employees joined the labor organization. When Walmart announced this year that it was temporarily closing several stores due to plumbing issues, Our Walmart claimed the move was in response to the strength of community organizing at one location.
The campaign has left an outsized impact on the company, says Kate Bronfenbrenner, director of labor education research at Cornell University's School of Industrial and Labor Relations. Black Friday strikes have put pressure on executives to hike pay, but they've also managed to bring more workers into the ranks of the labor group and focus public attention on Walmart's workplace conditions.
"In the last three years of the strikes, we have seen some changes happen," Bronfenbrenner says. "With an employer as large as Walmart, that's huge."
Walmart is going through somewhat of a slump. In August, it lowered profit targets for the fiscal year. The company says profits are declining due to currency fluctuations, lackluster reimbursements for its pharmacy business and higher wages.