The protest comes after a gunman killed 22 people and wounded dozens of others at a Walmart store and a shopping center in El Paso on Saturday. Days earlier, two Walmart employees were fatally shot at a store in Southaven, Miss., and a former employee has been charged in the shooting.
“There’s an intense irony that Walmart continues to sell guns despite the constant shootings in its stores,” said Kate Kesner, an e-commerce employee in San Bruno who helped organize the protest.
Organizers also started a Change.org petition to call on company executives to stop selling firearms. As of Wednesday evening, it had more than 38,000 signatures.
Randy Hargrove, a Walmart spokesman, said the company is encouraging workers to voice their opinions in other ways.
“There are more effective channels such as email or leadership conversations,” he said. “The vast majority of our associates who want to share their views are taking advantage of those options.”
But Thomas Marshall, 23, category specialist at Walmart who helped organize the walkout, said that workers “no longer want to be complicit by working for a company that profits off the sale of firearms.”
He accused Walmart of retaliating against him and Kesner by shutting down their company email and Slack accounts on Tuesday, after they sent a division-wide email to roughly 20,000 e-commerce employees urging to join their efforts. He said Wednesday that his account had been restored.
“If I didn’t do something today, I would be a party to making money off weapon sales,” Marshall said. “We’re trying to start a conversation.”
In San Bruno, about 40 employees stood outside Walmart’s building there for 15 minutes in a circle. They hung their heads in silence briefly and then asked anyone to speak out. Only a handful did so.
Operations manager Tom Misner, 46, was one of them. He said Walmart can and should do something about the rash of gun violence.
In an interview he said he is a believer in the Second Amendment, but “I don’t understand how that has included weapons of mass destruction” like assault rifles. He said Walmart should use its influence to lobby Congress for better gun control laws. “Congress will not do anything,” he said.
Marshall said some employees worried they might face consequences if they participated in the walkout. “People are really afraid for their jobs,” he said. “Walmart has a reputation for silencing dissent.”
Hargrove earlier declined to say whether employees would be penalized for taking part in the walkout. “There has been no discipline, and we’re not going to speculate on that further."
In recent years, a growing wave of workers has pushed back against the corporate policies at some of the nation’s largest tech and retail firms. Employees at Amazon, Google and Microsoft have called on management to stop selling facial recognition technology and other services to law enforcement agencies and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. (Jeff Bezos, the founder and chief executive of Amazon, owns The Washington Post.)
In June, hundreds of Wayfair employees walked out to protest the sale of $200,000 worth of furniture to a Texas detention center that houses migrant children.
Walmart’s store employees have long called on the company to improve pay, benefits and scheduling practices. But this week’s efforts are among the first by corporate employees meant to pressure the company to change its practices. Walmart, which has 1.5 million workers, is the nation’s largest employer.
In addition to Wednesday’s walkout, employees encouraged their colleagues to call in sick on Tuesday in protest of the company’s gun policies, according to an email obtained by The Washington Post. Hargrove, the Walmart spokesman, said Marshall and Kesner were the only employees who had done so.
Walmart, which is based in Bentonville, Ark., has tightened its gun policies over the years. It stopped selling handguns in 1993 and phased out assault-style rifles in 2015. Last year, it raised the minimum age for gun purchases from 18 to 21, two weeks after 17 students and teachers were killed in a shooting at a high school in Parkland, Fla.
On Tuesday, chief executive Doug McMillon said in an Instagram post that the company will “work to understand the many important issues arising from El Paso and Southaven as well as those raised in the broader national discussion around gun violence.”
“We’ll be thoughtful and deliberate in our responses,” he said.
View this post on Instagram
Last week, our Walmart family suffered two separate acts of violence. It’s difficult to find a word strong enough to describe the way we feel. We’re feeling a range of emotions – shock, anger, grief. We also feel gratitude for the first responders in El Paso and Southaven and are proud of the way associates reacted so courageously. ⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀ I’m in El Paso today, and I’ve met heroes. We heard incredible stories of associates who made heroic efforts to get customers to safety. From our manager, Robert, who was leaving the store then ran back when he heard shots, to Gilbert and Lasonya, who helped dozens of customers to safety out the back of the store, to Mayra, who may have been the very first responder, and did an exceptional job bandaging wounds and helping customers escape. I also got to thank Sarah and her team from the Sam’s Club next door for the care they provided to customers. We heard story after story of courageous associates putting others ahead of themselves. ⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀ When the worst happens, we counter with our best selves. We support each other, pray, stand firm and heal together. We’re proud to be woven into the American fabric as a place for all people, a community gathering place. ⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀ As it becomes clear that the shooting in El Paso was motivated by hate, we’re more resolved than ever to foster an inclusive environment where all people are valued and welcomed. Our store in El Paso is well known as a tight-knit community hub, where we serve customers from both sides of the border. I continue to be amazed at the strength and resilience we find in the diversity of communities where we live and work. ⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀ We’re a learning organization, and we’ll work to understand the many important issues arising from El Paso and Southaven as well as those raised in the broader national discussion around gun violence. We’ll be thoughtful and deliberate in our responses, and will act in a way that reflects our best values and ideals, focused on the needs of our customers, associates and communities. ⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀ Thanks for what you do every day, especially during this difficult time. I’m grateful to be part of this team and proud of you.