Hundreds of people protested at a suburban Maryland Wal-Mart over wages and worker protections Thursday as D.C. Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) weighed whether to sign legislation that would force the nation’s largest retailer to pay a 50 percent premium over the city’s minimum wage.
The national day of action, which spanned 15 cities, was the latest in a running battle between Wal-Mart and activists backed by national unions.
Coming on the heels of a strike in scores of cities last week by fast-food restaurant employees, the action led some to question whether the country’s working poor were reaching a tipping point of frustration over stagnating wages and declining buying power.
The activists had given Wal-Mart a Labor Day deadline to respond to their demand for an annual wage of $25,000 for full-time workers. The restaurant workers sought a wage of $15 an hour. Both figures would amount to a major jump from the current federal hourly minimum wage of $7.25.
The protests led to sporadic arrests and intensified scrutiny of Gray’s decision. He faces a deadline of next week.
With plans for six stores in the District, Wal-Mart had threatened to pull out of at least three of them if the bill becomes law. On Thursday, one of those deals fell through because of differences between the developer and landowner — not because Wal-Mart backed out.
Supporters of the Large Retailer Accountability Act, passed by the D.C. Council in July, boarded buses Thursday afternoon outside offices of the AFL-CIO in the District and traveled to one of the Wal-Mart stores closest to the capital, which does not have one.
At the store near the Baltimore-Washington Parkway in Landover Hills, just over 200 protesters marched onto Route 450 at rush hour chanting, “They say, ‘Roll back.’ We say, ‘Fight back.’ ”
The group abandoned a route agreed upon with police and fanned out across the main intersection leading to the store as traffic backed up for nearly a mile.
Prince George’s County police arrested six protesters who refused to leave the roadway after multiple warnings.
Only two protesters publicly identified themselves as former Wal-Mart employees, and store spokesman Steve Jumper said no employees walked off the job to join the protest. Jumper said full-time Wal-Mart workers in Maryland earn $12.10 an hour.
Antoinette Norwood, a resident of Northeast, was typical of the protesters. She boarded a union-funded bus from the District and said she wanted to lend her voice to the effort because she doesn’t want Wal-Mart moving into one of its planned sites off Georgia Avenue.
Results from an unscientific survey of Washington Post readers
“As much money as Wal-Mart makes, it can afford to pay more,” said the retired security worker. “Living on $8.50 in the District is hard living; two people making $8.50 can’t even pay rent.”
Wal-Mart cast the protests as a “stunt” by national labor interests intent on trying to unionize the giant retailer’s workforce.
“What you’re seeing today is not coming from Wal-Mart [employees], it’s labor-backed, union-backed demonstrations trying to garner attention for their cause,” said Brooke Buchanan, a Wal-Mart spokeswoman.
Buchanan stressed Wal-Mart’s oft-repeated defense that its hourly workers earn an average of $12.83.
“We do everything we can to help workers get the hours they deserve and that they ask for. There is nothing but opportunity at Wal-Mart,” she said.
The protests against Wal-Mart are the latest in a growing wave of job actions by low-wage workers pressing for better pay and working conditions.
Thursday’s protests were organized by the Organization United for Respect at Wal-Mart, or OUR Wal-Mart, a group backed by the United Food and Commercial Workers union.
Last week, fast–food workers staged one-day strikes in nearly 60 cities around the country. The work stoppages, which started with a walkout in New York last November, are being supported by labor unions, including the Services Employees International Union.
The unions see traditionally unorganized sectors of the workforce, including fast-food workers and retail clerks, as not only potential members but also as bellwethers for the larger labor force.
Researchers have found that the recession wiped out millions of well-paying jobs, and a disproportionate share of the new jobs created during the recovery have been in traditionally low-wage work.
The future appears just as bleak: The federal Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that seven of the 10 fastest-growing occupations over the next decade will be low-wage ones, such as store clerks, home aides, laborers and food preparation workers.
The changing composition of the labor force is one reason that wages have stagnated in the country for the past 13 years.
“These walkouts are definitely a new development,” said Marc Doussard, a University of Illinois professor and author of “Degraded Work,” an examination of low-wage working conditions. “Because of the recession and some of the popular understanding of the issues of inequality, people are more attuned to these issues.”
President Obama has called for raising the federal minimum wage to $9 an hour. And while polls show that many Americans agree, a minimum-wage hike faces staunch opposition from business interests who fear a competitive disadvantage in a marketplace where low prices are paramount.
Another goal of the group Thursday was to pressure Wal-Mart to reinstate 20 employees it says where unfairly fired and 80 who were disciplined for striking earlier this year.
A Wal-Mart spokesman said the company has a policy against retaliation. The National Labor Relations Board says it is looking into 36 complaints filed by current and former Wal-Mart employees.