The push for Walmart to pay its workers a living wage of $25,000 goes national on Thursday as employees and activists plan protests in 15 cities—and continue waiting for the retailer to respond to demands. If all goes according to a plan, it will be the biggest Walmart mobilization since Black Friday, when thousands rallied to support striking workers.
"We're calling on Walmart to allow us better wages, affordable wages, sufficient healthcare, and to stop silencing workers who are speaking out such as myself," Carlton Smith, who worked for Walmart for 17 years before being fired in May, said in an interview with The Atlantic Wire. "We shouldn't be fired for standing up and speaking out."
The protest will also be the second nationwide wage-related labor walkout in eight days, following the fast food strikes one week ago. In both instances, laborers point to the immense gap between corporate profits and staff earnings.
But Walmart organizers say the company has gone one further by silencing its workers.
At the center of the controversy is a union-backed group calling itself the Organization United for Respect at Walmart (OUR Walmart), which has been drawing together irate workers and agitating for better pay and conditions since 2011. The action heated after nearly 80 of the group's members were disciplined or fired by the company following a June walkout, The Nation reports:
OUR Walmart’s response to the alleged illegal retaliation has included protest rallies, pressure on Yahoo! CEO and Walmart board member Marissa Mayer and outreach to members of Congress. The campaign has filed charges with the National Labor Relations Board alleging that the discipline violated federal labor law. Walmart has denied wrongdoing; a spokesperson told The Nation last month that “no associates were disciplined for participating in any specific protests.”
Agitators gave Walmart a Labor Day deadline to reinstate the workers and commit to improving jobs. With demands unmet, workers around the country have committed to walking off the job today. Protests are planned for cities across the coasts, including New York, Chicago, Cincinnati, San Francisco, and Washington, D.C., where activists are still awaiting word on the pending "living wage" bill. (Washington's city council approved the bill in June, but Mayor Vincent Gray hasn't said whether he'll let it become law.)
Walmart representatives dispute the workers' stories.
"We have never retaliated against an associate for raising concerns, nor would we," said Kory Lundberg, a company spokesperson. "None of these folks received discipline without specific prior feedback or notices. Many of these associates—they just didn't show up for work for days."
Calling today's protests a "stunt that doesn't represent the views of the vast majority of our associates," Lundberg insisted that the company's wages aren't so meager. "Of course we pay competitive wages," he insisted. "You have to, or else you don't hire good people. We've got 1.3 million associates."
Among the West Coast organizers is Smith, a 17-year veteran of Walmart's Paramount, California location. A former department manager in Housewares, Smith started at Walmart as an overnight stocker earning $5.50 an hour. He became increasingly involved with OUR Walmart in 2012 and was fired this spring.
"For 14 years I was a model associate," he claimed. After he began speaking out about labor conditions, "they started silencing me, by holding me to standards that they weren't holding other associates to. We were so understaffed, and the workload placed on me [was] unsurmountable."
Since his dismissal, Smith has spent his efforts educating Walmart workers about labor rights and ways to push back against the company.
"They made $16 billion in profits last year," he said. "They shouldn't have a problem paying their associates a living wage and affordable healthcare. God forbid one day my grandkids might have to work for this company."
Walmart's CEO, Mike Duke, has recently denied that the company's wages are as low as critics claim, telling CNBC, "I think less than one percent of our associates make the minimum wage." Some of the his spokesmen, though, seem more inclined to take shots at The Nation's internship program than respond to workers' complaints.
This story has been updated with a response from Walmart.