With the continuing creep of Black Friday sales, stores are opening earlier and earlier. One sales associate at the Best Buy in South Philadelphia said that customers begin lining up at midnight on Thanksgiving. Last year, he said, the line stretched from the store around the parking lot and to the Philadelphia Parking Authority building blocks away. At the Walmart on Columbus Boulevard, the parking lot was filled to capacity Monday afternoon, with a wait three cars deep for handicapped spots.
Many retail employees are now finding themselves working Thanksgiving night. Walmart is opening at 8 p.m. Thursday and frustrated workers are taking to the picket lines in eight states across the country to raise awareness about working conditions at the nation's largest retailer on its busiest shopping day.
"We're protesting the fact that employees are working at minimum wage and that few are with benefits, if any at all," said Bill Epstein, director of communications for United Food and
Commercial Workers Local 1776, which does not represent Walmart employees, none of which are unionized in the U.S. "We're protesting the last-minute scheduling that makes it difficult for families to plan child care, yet they're expected to be at work day after day. The problem here is that these policies are leading our country in a
race to the bottom."
Of 1,000 planned Black Friday actions against Walmart, three demonstrations will be staged in Philadelphia beginning at 8 a.m. at Walmart's Columbus Boulevard store in South Philadelphia, its Aramingo Avenue location in Port Richmond and its Adams Avenue outlet in Northeast Philadelphia. "We will join to demonstrate solidarity with and support the courageous Walmart workers who have walked out on strike in eight states," Epstein said. "The labor movement supports workers and families wherever they are. Walmart is the largest retailer in the country, which is why it's particularly important that they set an example."
He said that though UFCW is helping to organize the demonstration, it is neither a strike nor a picket and it is not exclusively union-backed. The protest will also include community activist groups Jobs with Justice, the Jewish Labor Committee and the NAACP, as well as members of the UFCW-backed Making Change at Walmart and Walmart employee coalition OUR Walmart. "We're not trying to stop anyone from going into the store at all," Epstein said. "We're just going to be asking customers to sign a petition."
But Walmart clearly disagrees. The company on Friday filed a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board seeking a court injunction stopping the Black Friday actions. The complaint alleges that, through OUR Walmart, which they refer to as a union subsidiary, the UFCW has been picketing, intimidating Walmart customers and employees with the intent of forcing Walmart workers to unionize and to select the UFCW as their bargaining representative.
"Over the past year – or longer, the UFCW has orchestrated numerous pickets, mass demonstrations, flash mobs and other confrontational activities both inside and outside Walmart facilities in support of its bargaining and recognition demands," Walmart counsel Steven Wheeless wrote in a letter attached to the complaint. "These have caused disruptions to Walmart's business, resulted in misinformation being shared publicly about our company, and created an uncomfortable environment and undue stress on Walmart's customers, including families with children."
Epstein countered that he's never seen any protesters attempting to make customers uncomfortable or disrupt their shopping. "What Walmart is trying to do here is basically grasp at straws to try to stop the groundswell of voices coming form their own employees who are protesting the company's attempts to silence workers," he said. "That coalition standing in front of the stores on Friday, they're saying there's nothing in the law that can stop their voices."
Walmart fires back
Walmart spokesman Steve Restivo called the demonstrations "unlawful and misleading" and said they do not accurately represent the vast majority of Walmart's 1.3 million U.S. sales associates, who have no interest in being represented by the UFCW.
"Just to be clear, OUR Walmart is a wholly-owned subsidiary of the UFCW," he said. "I think, more importantly, there are only a handful of associates at a few stores across the country who are actually participating in these UFCW publicity stunts. Most of the people that UFCW claims are at their events aren't even Walmart associates – they're union representatives and other union members." He cited figures showing that Walmart has a lower turnover rate than the retail industry average and that the company's wages and benefits are "as good, if not better" than most of its competitors, including unionized grocery stores.
Though Epstein couldn't comment on whether a judge could take action in time to stop the demonstrations, he said it's important for the company to send a message with the court filing. "We're taking this action now because we can't allow the UFCW to continue to intentionally seek to create an environment that will adversely affect associates and customers," he said. "And if they do, they will be held accountable."