Workers' rights are human rights. That's what one hand painted sign said at a protest outside a Wal-Mart store in Decatur, Georgia, Friday. About two dozen protesters stood on the sidewalk across the street from the mega-retailer's store in this suburb, just east of Atlanta, playing drums, waving flags and signs, and shouting at motorists to make them aware of what they see as the questionable labor practices of the world's largest retailer.
"We wanted to show our solidarity with Wal-Mart workers," said Diana Eidson, who took part in the event on the unofficial kickoff day of the holiday shopping season. Many Wal-Mart associates around the country walked out, Friday, to demonstrate their own dissatisfaction with their employer.
"We're saying community, not consumerism; family, not frenzy," Misty Novitch, a social justice activist, agreed. "We're trying to offer a different way of doing Black Friday, that supports the [Wal-Mart] workers on strike around the country, striking for just a living wage, healthcare, predictable scheduling," she explained, "so they don't get retaliated against when they try to form a union, the ability to form a union without fear."
Eidson, a student in rhetoric and composition at Georgia State University, who is preparing her doctoral thesis on labor issues, called the company "the biggest union busting retail organization," adding that because "Wal-Mart's the largest, and they're the most virulently anti-union, we really need to attack Wal-Mart. Because it's a pyramid system [of wage and worker suppression], we need to start at the top, and it will just crumble all the way down."
"It's the biggest employer in the country, and most workers are not making enough to live," Novitch pointed out. "They're on Food Stamps. They're on government aid, even though they're working. That's not cool. Come on. You're working almost full time and you have to be on government aid? So we are paying for the workers of Wal-Mart, instead of Wal-Mart paying for its own workers."
According to Wal-Mart, as of Friday morning, after their Thanksgiving night early bargain hunter's opening, only 50 employees had walked off the job. Still, reports of hundreds of protesters hitting the pavement, Friday, continued to come in from around the country all day. Huffington Post reported that in the Los Angeles area alone, more than 70 workers from nine stores walked out.
Atlanta protesters noted that the retailer's size makes it not only an easy target, but an important one. "Wal-Mart's so huge that it can throw its weight around," Novitch pointed out. "If they fire a worker [who complains, or is looking to organize], that's your whole life. You might have a family, and your whole family might become homeless or go hungry because you tried to [exercise] your rights to form a union."
And it's not just labor practices that's in the cross-hairs of activists. There is the perennial issue of what happens to a community when a Wal-Mart comes to town. "We've got Wal-Mart coming into a city, and basically killing off the mom & pop businesses, through driving all the wages down and taking all the business away," Eidson lamented. "They're just a community killer."
Isn't that just the free market? No, says Eidson. "Even though Walmart says it's the free market, and it's capitalism, it's not. They're getting welfare and subsidies, to the extent that they can come in, and literally not pay anything, hardly, for this building, because they're bringing jobs to the community - that's the way they sell it. But they're getting tax breaks from the local municipal government. They're getting cheap land and facilities. They're getting all these tax breaks for research and development like other companies. And they're not even paying a living wage. Why should they get all these benefits? What happened to American citizens and consumers getting benefits? That's what I'd like to ask."
For more information on Wal-Mart workers' struggle for labor rights, check out the OUR Walmart site - http://forrespect.org/