Lansing Area Residents Protest Wal-Mart’s Treatment of Workers

It’s Thanksgiving in Delta Township, Michigan and the parking lot at Wal-Mart is packed at a little after 9 p.m.. The big box retailer decided to start its Black Friday sales at 8 p.m. on Thanksgiving and the consumers have arrived en masse to TVs, toasters and other items.

Wal-Mart is not alone in starting early with Black Friday sales. Toys R Us and Kmart also started at 8 p.m., while Target started an hour later. But the difference between those three stores and Wal-Mart is that they didn’t have protesters, even a small band of them, standing on the outer edge of the parking lot.

Although the group at around 9 p.m. appeared to be less than a dozen, they still stood on on two sides of the road, waving signs informing passing drivers of how a Wal-Mart worker earns wages so low that they have to go on Medicaid and Food Stamps. A United Auto Workers flag was held up and the drivers honked in solidarity. Jason Wilkes of UAW Local 724 led the protest and was pleased with turnout.

“With 3 days turn around [from when he decided to lead the protest], I’m pleased with the turnout,” Wilkes said.

He had no idea how many people would come out.

Wilkes decided to become the “host” for the event after finding out about the planned event from Corporate Action Net, which he said listed events at both Wal-Mart and Sam’s Club stores in the Lansing-area, he decided to “bite the bullet” and become the host. He then informed others of the planned picketing through Facebook and other methods.

Among those that came out was Joshua Levine, an employee at a nearby Steak ‘n Shake who decided to work Thanksgiving instead of Black Friday. Levine is active in trying to support labor causes and turned out at this event, still wearing his Steak ‘n Shake uniform.

“If Wal-Mart changes [their policies], the whole industry could change,” Levine said.

What is possibly Wal-Mart’s biggest competitor in Michigan, Grand Rapids-based Meijer, has employees who are members of the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union as well as truck drivers that are members of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters. Meijer has prices that are the competitive with Wal-Mart’s prices and features a similar format as a Supercenter.

“[Wal-Mart] could viably unionize, in my mind,” Levine said

Cheryl Overley, another protester, was there with her daughter, Bronwen Overley. Cheryl Overley pointed out that in 2000, butchers at a store in Texas voted to organize, which resulted in Wal-Mart deciding to eliminate butcher department in all of its stores nationwide.

“They’d rather close a department or a store than have unionized workers,” Cheryl Overley said.

In 2005, Wal-Mart closed a store in Jonquière, Que. after the workers voted to organize.

Between 9 and 9:30 p.m., there were no Wal-Mart employees who had walked out of work and actively joined the picket. Wilkes was hoping there would be workers, as that was “the ultimate goal,” but mentioned that there had yet to be any workers turning out.

Levine said that a friend of his is employed by Wal-Mart and active with Organized Union for Respect at Walmart, but had recently been posting about great deals shoppers could get for Black Friday, suggesting that there had been intimidation, which has been reported elsewhere.

Shoppers at the Wal-Mart declined to be interviewed as they were in the parking lot. Wal-Mart’s corporate office could not be reached for comment on the protests and walkouts throughout the country.