Wal-Mart Black Friday Protests
Calling on Walmart to treat workers with more respect, a group of about 30 demonstrators spent several hours standing outside a Walmart store in San Leandro, Calif., on Black Friday Noah Berger/Reuters

Customers of Wal-Mart Stores Inc. (NYSE: WMT) have voted with their pocketbooks, vying to shop away the day despite protests from some employees and labor rights advocates who claim there are a series of abusive labor practices by the world’s largest retail chain.

The company issued a press statement on Friday that indicates American consumers flocked to the company’s outlets and cleared shelves without missing a beat. In the unusually detailed statement on Friday, a day after its earliest Black Friday sales event debut, the company said it sold 5,000 items per second to 22 million customers between 8 p.m. and midnight on Thanksgiving Day.

It also steeped the announcement with praise for its workers.

“I’m so proud of what our more than 1.3 million associates have done to prepare and execute our Black Friday plans, giving our customers a great start to their Christmas shopping season,” said Bill Simon, Wal-mart U.S. president and chief executive officer. A search through the company’s news archive found no other instance where the company’s Black Friday announcement was so focused on praise for its employees.

Black Friday protests involving some Wal-Mart employees with the backing and support of the company’s traditional union foe, the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) Union, has Wal-Mart pushing back against numerous allegations, including that it tinkers with schedules to keep workers from qualifying for company health insurance benefits, that it keeps many of its workers guessing about the number of hours they will receive each pay period, and that its lowest-paid employees have to depend on government benefits typically associated with the unemployed.

“America’s largest employer is Wal-Mart, whose average employee earns $8.81 an hour. A third of Wal-Mart’s employees work less than 28 hours per week and don’t qualify for benefits,” wrote leftist political economist and former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich in a critical essay published Friday in The American Prospect. “Wal-Mart earned $16 billion last year (it just reported a 9 percent increase in earnings in the third quarter of 2012, to $3.6 billion), much of which went to Wal-Mart’s shareholders.”

For its part, Wal-Mart played down the protests, saying Friday that it observed only 26 protests involving “less than 50 associates.” Wal-Mart says most protesters are not affiliated with the company and that many of them are rallied by the UFCW. The UFCW claims that 1,000 protests are planned on Friday in 100 cities and 46 states. A group of past and current Wal-Mart hourly employees calling itself the Organization United for Respect at Wal-Mart (OUR Walmart) called for company employees to strike on Friday.

On Friday, CBSDC reported that “hundreds” of Wal-Mart employees were protesting in Landover Hills, Md. In Chicago, WGN News reported that two busloads of protesters wearing OUR Wal-Mart T-shirts came out for a rally, claiming they make about $11 an hour and are kept below 40 hours a week. Two-dozen UFCW-affiliated protesters were reported in Atlanta.

On Monday Wal-Mart complained to the National Labor Relations Board that the protests are an illegal union action. The NLRB replied that it was investigating the allegations, but that it was unlikely to rule on prohibiting the protests by Friday.

“Walmart has spent the last 50 years pushing its way on workers and communities,” said Mary Pat Tifft, an OUR Wal-Mart member and 24-year associate who led a protest on Thursday evening in Kenosha, Wisc. “In just one year, leaders of OUR Wal-Mart and Warehouse Workers United have begun to prove that change is coming to the world’s largest employer.”

In October, thirty warehouse workers staged a strike at the company’s massive Elwood, Ill., distribution facility. Seventeen workers were taken away in handcuffs for civil disobedience, and two dozen cops in riot gear were dispatched to the scene. More than 600 people turned out in support of the action, which led to an agreement to improve working conditions, pay back wages and provide shin guards that the employees had been asking for.

Whether the actions against Wal-Mart comprises an legitimate grievance from the company’s large number of uninsured hourly wage workers, or an attempt by organized labor to unionize the company’s labor pool, one thing is obvious: American shoppers are far less interested in labor politics and policies than they are in filling their carts on the busiest shopping day of the year.