The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

In the run-up to Black Friday, Walmart and strikers wage a war of words

While this happens inside Wal-Marts, workers plan to protest for higher wages outside.  (Michael Reynolds/European Pressphoto Agency)

Consider a box of donated food placed out for workers to help their colleagues put a festive meal on the table at Thanksgiving, which happened over the past few days at Wal-Marts in Frankfort, Ind., and Oklahoma City.

Is that touching charity for the less fortunate? Or evidence of an employer so stingy that its employees don’t make enough to provide for themselves?

It depends on whether you’re asking Walmart or the campaigners trying to raise awareness about the retailer’s low pay.

In advance of coordinated strikes at Wal-Marts across the country on the day after Thanksgiving, a labor union-backed group is accusing the world’s biggest retailer of driving its associates into starvation — and Wal-Mart is fighting back harder than ever, saying it’s just providing low-cost groceries to the masses.

Why is Wal-Mart specifically under seige, rather than Best Buy or Target? Other retailers pay low wages too, of course — recent research found that the average cashier at Starbucks makes $8.80 per hour, only a few nickles more than the average Wal-Mart cashier.

Wal-Mart says it pays an average hourly wage, excluding managers, of $11.81 — slightly more than the mean for retail sales workers nationally, which is $11.39.

But Wal-Mart has always been a target, because it’s the biggest retailer of all of them, at 1.3 million employees, so any change has the potential to meaningfully affect the most people. (In addition, it dramatically illustrates the themes of inequality that have resonated among the public, with the Walton family occupying spaces eight through 11 on the Forbes list of billionaires.)

This is the third year in which Making Change at Walmart, a campaign financed and run by the United Food and Commercial Workers Union — which represents employees at Wal-Mart’s competitors, like Safeway and Giant — will have staged protests on Black Friday.

In 2012, the company downplayed the protesters as a disgruntled minority, and filed with the National Labor Relations Board in an attempt to stop the few strikes it expected to crop up. In 2013, Wal-Mart communications kicked the pushback up a notch, with preemptive tip sheets for reporters on questions to ask the demonstrators.

A few things have happened over the past year that an activist might interpret as progress. Low-wage workers in many different sectors have coalesced around the call for a $15 minimum wage, which doesn’t sound as outlandish as it did before Seattle made it a reality. In response to a push on the issue from President Obama, some retailers have started raising salaries, saying that better-paid workers are more productive and have more cash to spend themselves. Wal-Mart itself, on the day last month when 26 workers were arrested outside Anne Walton’s Park Avenue house, said that in the future none of its workers would make minimum wage at all. And as a lean staffing strategy has left shelves poorly stocked and customers upset, the company has promised to hire more people (though full-time hours remain elusive for many).

But still, in an era when strikers can easily be replaced, media coverage is the only power many workers really have to make an impact on their employers — so the Making Change at Walmart campaign needs to give the public something new.

It’s doing that by promising the “biggest Black Friday mobilization ever,” with actions planned at 2,233 stores. It’s also doing that by playing up the idea that Wal-Mart wages aren’t enough to even feed families, with a report from activist public health lawyer Michele Simon called “Walmart’s Hunger Games,” as well as a Tumblr with the same name featuring stories of workers who skip meals when they can’t afford them. Like last year, the activists reacted with outrage at the couple examples of Wal-Mart allowing bake sales and food bins in its stores, saying it’s just an admission that the company doesn’t pay its workers enough to live on.

“It hurts to talk about being that hungry,” said Martha Sellers, who has worked at a store in Pico Rivera, Calif., for 11 years, on a conference call with reporters Friday. She says when she was feeling lightheaded at work from having not eaten, a manager asked her if she was hungover. “Hungover from starvation? How do you answer that to a manager who won’t give you enough hours or pay you enough?”

Wal-Mart has answered those charges with a hail of its own press releases, including one explaining the backstory behind the food bins in Oklahoma City, saying that a longtime associate had put them out to collect donations for two employees who were on medical leave and unable to come to work. Meanwhile, it continues giving millions of dollars to groups that supply food banks. And in an uncommon admission that attacks on its treatment of workers might have actually reached the public consciousness, the company launched a page devoted to “The Real Walmart,” with stories of associates who moved up the ranks or just love their jobs as they are.

After three years, Black Friday has turned into a pitched battle between a megastore just trying to capitalize on consumer frenzy, and workers attempting to hijack the PR blitz for their own purposes. At some stores, the tide is turning, with a few large retailers advertising their decisions to respect their workers’ right to Thanksgiving with their families.

Ultimately, the day after the day after Thanksgiving, both sides will declare victory. The real test will be whether Walmart yields to any demands in the coming year, because workers have made enough noise that consumers start to listen.