Walmart Strike: Black Friday Labor Protests Could Help Unions Make a Comeback


America is a country of two minds, and we’re not talking about the election anymore. When it comes to unions, we feel strongly. Depending on the situation however, we have a tendency to flip flop.

We’re pro union when it comes to sports — sometimes. When millionaire players are brattily asking for more millions, like the current NHL lockout, they don’t get much sympathy. But when the pro football referees went on strike for more reasonable pay, fans everywhere almost unanimously backed their demands, especially after the Seahawk replacement ref disaster.

The recent Chicago teacher’s strike pitting Mayor Rahm Emanuel against the unions was a case study in American’s ambivalence toward unions. Everyone wanted the best for the city’s kids, but whether or not the teachers were being selfish, or an instrumental part of their welfare was a matter of fiery debate.

Most recently, on Black Friday, thousands of Walmart employees collectively protested low wages, alleged unsafe working conditions, and unreasonable hours. This map from the Corporate Action Network shows that strikes occurred across the country. According to The Nation’s Josh Eidelson’s liveblog of the strikes, as of 2:00pm on Friday “there [were] Black Friday strikers in at least 100 cities and protests in forty-six states.”

Many American’s showed their support of the workers by signing online petitions that state, "This Black Friday, I'm standing in solidarity with Walmart workers on strike. I won't let Walmart silence them for speaking out about their working conditions." Others went even further and physically stood with workers on the picket line, or in nearby stations to provide food. 

Tennessee reverend, Brian Merritt lead his congregation in prayer to “tear down systems where equality is a commodity traded on markets and only done if profitable. Restore dignity in our shared images. Lord, open up the gated communities. Restore humanity to those who live a little higher than the trailer park.” And the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) urged shoppers to boycott the store and its Black Friday sales.

But did they? Did Americans do the one thing that would give the strikers bargaining power — cut into sales profits? It appears not. The Huffington Post reported that although shoppers may be emotionally supportive, they still gave the mega chain their business. The same poor economy that is leading to worker cutbacks and abuses is also driving customers into the store in droves.

The site interviewed a shopper who confessed that, “her own low wages made her feel a sense of community with the striking Walmart workers, but those same wages also generated pressure to find and buy goods at low prices.” She bought a TV on layaway.

Then, there are those who are outright hostile to the strikers. Plenty of people, myself included, work on public holidays. The more subtle issue however is less about the number of hours, and more about the number of dollars. The comparison isn’t one-to-one. It’s about the amount paid. The problem of working demanding hours is a badge of honor for white-collar jobs, but an insult when employees are not making a living-wage. Low wages coupled with unreasonable hours lead to the strikers’ walk out, but many Americans feel that this is just a matter of course now.

However we feel about unions, most Americans agree that the right to a living-wage is something the most prosperous country on earth should be able to provide to those who are willing to work hard. 

Whether you feel like this:

Or like this:

Hopefully these strikes can be concluded with the workers able to live with dignity, and the company able to thrive. Often the two are mutually beneficial.