The competition to frame the Black Friday Walmart protests continues. Walmart, of course, has every reason to minimize the protests and OUR Walmart, the group organizing the protests, has every reason to exaggerate them. Since protests were basically crowd-sourced and ranged from tiny to big, it's probably impossible to determine the truth. No one is claiming that anything but a small fraction of Walmart's massive number of employees took part; on the other hand, it's a new thing that any
Walmart employees are protesting, and these terribly underpaid workers do so at the risk of their jobs.
Walmart says it had the most awesomest Black Friday ever (we'll wait for revised sales figures in a couple months to find out the truth there), and there weren't very many protests at all and almost no actual Walmart employees took part: "Wal-Mart said roughly 50 employees participated in the events Thursday and a 'few dozen' took part Friday." (Except that that's not actually a small number in the history of Walmart worker activism—even if we take the company's low-ball number, it's probably the most Walmart workers ever to strike in a 24-hour period prior to 2012.)
But we know Walmart is engaging in serious understatement. A protest in Dallas reportedly involved 40 workers; one in Miami involved 70 workers. Already that's the number Walmart wants you to believe participated across the entire country. Add to that the 17 in Paramount, California. Diarist Bobbosphere says that in Chicago, "only a few [media] outlets actually quoted Walmart employees who were present," making it harder to know how many turned out. But he found at least four Chicago workers quoted, like:
WGN TV: “They retaliate by black listing us, telling other associates not to associate with us, shortening our working hours, all the way up to termination." —Walmart employee Charmaine Gibens Thomas.
There were strikers in Duarte, California, and in the Washington, DC, area, and even one guy in Oklahoma who hadn't planned to strike until a captive audience meeting held by his store's management to scare workers out of protesting changed his mind. Small numbers of workers, but more than Walmart wants us to believe existed, and each one of them an act of courage unimaginable for most of us. These are people who can't afford to lose their jobs, but they risked that for justice.
Of course protests drew more significant numbers of worker allies—it's a hell of a lot easier to protest when you don't run the risk of being fired for it. Walmart wants to downplay those numbers, too, but nearly 1,000 people rallied in Paramount, California, where nine—including three workers—were arrested for blocking the street during the peaceful event. There were around 400 rallying in one Maryland location and 200 in St. Paul, Minnesota. And so on.
Context matters. Walmart wants us to think of the context of its vast numbers of employees who didn't strike. That's a real context. But so is the fact that history was made in October when Walmart workers staged a rolling series of one-day strikes, the first such strikes in Walmart's 50-year history. The Black Friday actions made history again, and they made it bigger. The question is whether this is the peak of worker activism at Walmart, or just the beginning.