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Protesters take aim at Walmart worker wages

Yawu Miller | 12/4/2013, 11:35 a.m.
Melanie Griffiths reaches out to Walmart shoppers in Quincy during a Black Friday protest aimed at calling attention to workers at the retail giant, who labor activists say pays low wages and insufficient benefits. Banner photo

As shoppers parted with their paychecks in the Black Friday shopping frenzy, protesters across the United States staked out space in front of Walmart stores, calling for the chain to provide better pay and benefits to its employees.

Several dozen protesters gathered at the entrance to the store’s Quincy location, having been met by police at the doors of the store.

“We only came out with flyers,” said Melanie Griffiths, an organizer with the labor solidarity group Jobs With Justice. “We’re not saying ‘go away Walmart.’ We’re saying we stand with your workers.”

The protest was one of 32 actions planned at Walmart locations in Massachusetts and one of hundreds across the United States on Friday. The Quincy protest was not just labor activists, as Griffiths pointed out.

“We’ve got community groups out here,” Griffiths shouted through her megaphone. “We’ve got teachers. We’ve got faith leaders. This is a new kind of solidarity.”

Stewart Lanier, a United Methodist minister, said he came out to the event to protest the inequality of wealth distribution.

“It’s so obvious that this is so wrong,” he said. “When the inheritors of the Walmart fortune have $18 billion in profits and the majority of their employees qualify for government assistance, something’s fundamentally wrong.”

While numerous big box stores employ similar labor practices, Walmart has long been a major target of labor protests. The international retail chain is the second largest public corporation in the world and is the largest retailer in the United States.

Walmart critics say the chain’s low wages mean as many as 825,000 workers there earn less than $25,000 a year, qualifying many for government subsidies like food stamps and subsidized health care. Walmart employees, whom the management refer to as “associates,” are often fired for attempts to organize.

When an employee posted a sign soliciting donations for a fellow Walmart worker who had fallen on hard times, a photograph of the sign went viral. The sign’s message, “Please donate food items here so associates in need can enjoy Thanksgiving dinner,” seemed to underscore the plight of low-paid retail workers at a time when many state legislatures are pushing for increases to the state’s minimum wage.

While some communities see super stores like Walmart as a boon for their economies, many larger cities, including Boston, have fought to keep the retail giant out. Critics of Walmart say the stores undercut local retailers with low prices, driving them out of business. While a new Walmart means new jobs, those jobs are often at lower pay with fewer benefits, creating more demand for government subsidies.

Friday’s action was not aimed at driving Walmart out of Quincy, but rather at informing workers there of their rights, according to Griffith.

“We’re working to change how the workers think about themselves,” she said. “They’re a critical force in the corporation’s well-being. They call the workers associates. They should treat them that way.”

As Griffith led protesters in chants, motorists honked their horns in solidarity. Griffith and others at the protest said increased consciousness of the rising income gap in the United States is fueling a backlash against Walmart’s labor practices.

“This is the time of greatest income inequality since the beginning of the last century,” said David Weinstein, a Boston boat captain who joined the protest. “Walmart is the biggest part of that. They like to talk about having the lowest prices. They don’t like to talk about having the lowest wages.”