Striking the Empire

11.23.12

Do the Walmart Protests Matter?

Protesters in almost every state crashed the retail giant on Black Friday—but whether the spectacle had any real effect isn’t clear. Winston Ross reports from the throng.

EUGENE, Ore.—By the time the throng of two dozen protesters had begun to cluster outside the doors of the Walmart store on Green Acres Road here in Oregon’s Willamette Valley, the crush of shoppers jostling one another over Black Friday deals was long gone.

Traffic had receded to everyday levels: a few customers trickling in and out of the store, clutching gift wrap and Busch Light half-racks and the occasional flat-screen television. The protesters were joining a nationwide effort aimed at highlighting what they say are low wages, unsafe working conditions, and Grinch-y shift scheduling. There were few customers to influence by the time the event began at 10:30 a.m. But Walmart’s managers did not welcome even this minimal disruption.

“I’d like to speak to the store manager, please,” said Shelley Jensen,  co-chair of the Eugene Springfield Solidarity Network, a local congregation of union-backed groups that put together the Eugene protest. Jensen was at the Green Acres store’s customer service desk with a letter she wrote to Walmart, the gist of which is to make the company aware “that this is a perfect example of people who deserve better.”

It took a few minutes for the manager to get there. The store’s top workers were busy mapping out a strategy for clearing Walmart’s parking lot of protesters.

“I can see them through the window,” one employee said as she stomped to the customer service desk to call for backup.

After some walkie-talkie chatter, a manager whose name tag read “John” (but who declined to identify himself further) approached the picketers, none of whom worked at the store.

“Alright guys, I can’t have you on my property,” he said as another manager, also named John, approached Jensen at the customer service desk.

“I’d like to give you this letter,” she said.

“I’m not authorized to take it,” John said back, but he added, “I’m hearing you. I’m listening to you.”

As were the company’s customers—even if they disagreed with the message.

“Walmart workers get a living wage!” shouted Joe Kiefer at the protesters as he pushed a nearly empty shopping cart out of the store. “It’s an entry-level position, not a career job. Jobs just don’t work that way.”

A few minutes later, a man in a 1990s Ford Probe motored up to the scene, smoking a long cigarette. He got out of the car, shouted “ALL THESE PEOPLE ARE COMMUNISTS,” got back in the car and drove off.

The cops were on their way by that point, and after a cordial and tense chat with Eugene Police Sgt. Bob McDermed, the group voluntarily dispersed, if not hastily, chanting “We’ll be back, we’ll be back,” as they scattered out into the parking lot.

Video screenshot

A month ago, The Daily Beast's Jake Heller visited Walmart to find out what people thought about the company's working conditions.

Elsewhere in America, protests took on different shapes and formats. Workers walked off the job in at least seven states and launched protests in 46 states, all told. They had a light show in Kenosha, Wisc. They projected a 30-foot image on a Walmart Supercenter in Quincy, Ill., that read, “Stand Up Live Better.” In Maryland, protesters walked inside a store and in an Occupy Wall Street–style “mic check” shouted their support for Walmart associates and demands for better hours and pay. At a protest organized by Occupy Portland in Oregon, police arrested 33-year-old Justin Alexander Kerston for trespassing, interfering with a police officer, and disorderly conduct after “creating a disturbance inside the store,” according to a department press release. “When asked to leave by Walmart employees, he refused to leave and continued to yell and scream at employees and police officers.”

Walmart, defiantly, insisted the protests had no effect on their sales. A press release issued at 5:43 a.m. reported that the world’s largest retailer had larger crowds than last year and 22 million customers on Thursday, the day Black Friday actually began this year. During the “high traffic period” between 8 p.m. and midnight, stores processed “nearly 10 million register transactions,” according to the press release, and “almost 5,000 items per second.” The company sold more than 1.8 million towels and 1.3 million televisions.

“Only 26 protests occurred at stores last night and many of them did not include any Walmart associates,” said Bill Simon, the company’s president and chief executive officer, in the press release. “In addition, the company did not experience the walk-offs that were promised by the UFCW,” the United Food and Commercial Workers union that has helped organize much of the protests.

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

What remains to be seen, though, is whether the protests and corresponding bad publicity will have a long-term effect politically. One man, after returning a couple of garbage cans his wife didn’t like, said he was under the impression that Walmart treated its employees well. Seeing the protesters surprised him, and might influence whether he continues to shop there, he said.

“If they’re really doing what that lady said, working people that hard, I’ll look into it,” the man said, declining to be identified by name. “Definitely.”