Amid Black Friday crowds, Wal-Mart draws workers’ rights protesters

November 23, 2012

Hundreds of people rallied outside a Wal-Mart in Landover Hills on Friday morning, protesting what they considered efforts to silence the company’s workers.

The protest was one of 1,000 planned for Thanksgiving weekend by OUR Walmart, a national labor group. OUR Walmart has accused the world’s largest retail chain of retaliating against workers who speak out against low pay and understaffing. Group members said they saw the post-Thanksgiving shopping frenzy as a chance to draw attention to their cause.

Cynthia Murray, a 13-year Wal-Mart employee, was scheduled to work at the retailer’s store in Laurel on Friday but attended the rally instead. Murray says that after attending previous protests, she has been taken to a locked room and threatened by her supervisors. She was not sure if she would face similar intimidation this time.

“I’m gonna leave that in God’s hands and also in the hands of the federal government,” she said.

Several other Wal-Mart employees also walked out of work to attend the protest, according to the organizers. Supportive community members made up the rest of the crowd that marched through the parking lot of the Capital Plaza shopping center, shouting slogans such as, “Wal-Mart, Wal-Mart, you’re no good! Treat your workers like you should!”

“I’m here to fight for all the rights and for all the workers,” said Kuljeet Rathore, who works as a cashier at another retailer. “I just want to get them all to join the union.”

But Wal-Mart disputed the number of protests that the group claims were held or tha there many employees walked off the job. “Only 26 protests occurred at stores last night and many of them did not include any Walmart associates,” Bill Simon, Walmart U.S. president and chief executive officer, said in a statement.

“We estimate that less than 50 associates participated in the protest nationwide. In fact, this year, roughly the same number of associates missed their scheduled shift as last year,” Simon said.

“It was proven last night — and again today – that the OUR Walmart group doesn’t speak for the 1.3 million Walmart associates,” David Tovar, vice president of corporate communications, said in a statement. “We had our best Black Friday ever and OUR Walmart was unable to recruit more than a small number of associates to participate in these made for TV events. Press reports are now exposing what we have said all along — the large majority of protesters aren’t even Walmart workers.”

Wal-Mart filed a complaint last week against the union with the National Labor Relations Board to stop the rallies, but the board said the issues were too complex to rule on in such a brief span of time.

As protesters neared the doors of the Wal-Mart in Landover Hills, they were met by store manager Bobby Williams. The Rev. Edwin Jones, a rally organizer, asked Williams to guarantee that workers who had participated in the event would not face retaliation.

Wal-Mart stands behind the employees, Williams responded.

“Our core principle is about respect for the individual, and our associates definitely know that their voices are always heard,” Williams said.

Shoppers continued to stream into Wal-Mart during the event. Murray said she was not disappointed by the fact that the store’s parking lot remained full during the rally. OUR Walmart is trying to raise awareness, not put the store out of business, she said.

“We don’t want them to boycott us, because then we won’t make anything at all,” she said.

OUR Walmart receives its funding from the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union, which has previously tried to unionize Wal-Mart employees.

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