ELLSWORTH, Maine — While their numbers were dwarfed by the large crowd that turned out for the Black Friday buying bonanza, members of Occupy Ellsworth joined activists and employees around the nation Friday in pressing the nation’s largest private employer to raise employees’ wages.
About 15 activists — but no Walmart employees — stood on Myrick Street, across the entrance from the city’s Walmart Supercenter on Black Friday, holding signs sporting slogans such as “Support the strike!” and “Boycott Black Friday!”
This year, the company has been the target of protests and a union organizing campaign by United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW), which had promised a nationwide employee walkout and strike on Friday as part of its “OUR Walmart” campaign. While the Ellsworth protest took place several hundred yards from the Walmart store, motorists made their opinions known with supportive waves and horn honks or drive-by jeers.
Similar protests were planned in Augusta and Portland, according to Maine AFL-CIO mobilizer Sarah Bigney.
Despite the nationwide protests, which UFCW claimed took place in more than 100 cities across the nation, including Chicago, Miami and Dallas, Wal-Mart Stores Inc. reported the most successful Black Friday ever.
Walmart boasted impressive Black Friday figures. By late Friday morning, the company said it had already sold more than 1.3 million televisions, 1.3 million dolls and 250,000 bicycles during sale events, which began Thursday in some states. The company said it sold 5,000 items per second in the four hours between 8 p.m. and midnight Thursday.
An associate manager at the Ellsworth supercenter declined to comment on the protests, referring all questions to Wal-Mart Stores Inc. corporate headquarters in Bentonville, Ark.
The company claimed in 2011 that its average wage is $11.75 per hour for full-time employees, but a 2011 study by the University of California Berkeley’s Center for Labor Research and Education said the actual average for all employees — after taking into account the number of full-time versus part-time workers, and the disparity in wages — is much lower than that. According to protesters, the average wage for all Walmart employees is really $8.90 per hour.
The study showed that an increase in pay to $12 per hour for all Walmart employees would result in minimal price increases for consumers. Even if the company passed the entire cost of the wage increase to consumers, it said, the average shopping trip to Walmart would only cost 46 cents more.
Like other Occupy groups, Ellsworth’s protesters decry the wide disparity of income between the country’s wealthy elite and, well, everyone else, claiming that the Walmart family heirs’ wealth is equal to the bottom 30 percent of Americans’ incomes combined. (The actual figure, according to Economic Policy Institute, is even starker. That firm’s July analysis puts Walmart founder Sam Walton’s heirs’ wealth at equal to the bottom 41.5 percent.)
“Walmart has hundreds of thousands of employees struggling to make ends meet, and that’s not fair,” said one of the Ellsworth protesters, Elizabeth Roberts of Quincy, Mass. Roberts was in town visiting family for Thanksgiving.
Walmart has yet to respond directly to questions from the Bangor Daily News, but in a news release celebrating what the company said has been the most successful Black Friday in Walmart’s history, the company dismissed the national protests, and disputed the OUR Walmart’s report of worker-supported protests in 100 cities across the country.
In the release, the company estimates that fewer than 50 employees participated in the protests, and said the number of workers who missed scheduled shifts Friday was more than 60 percent less than Black Friday last year.
“The number of protests being reported by the UFCW are grossly exaggerated,” wrote Walmart spokesman David Tovar in a press release. “OUR Walmart group doesn’t speak for the 1.3 million [U.S.] Walmart associates. We had our best Black Friday ever and OUR Walmart was unable to recruit more than a small number of associates to participate in these made-for-TV events.”
In Ellsworth, protesters didn’t seem to mind that there were no Walmart employees among them, and said they were encouraged by the number of employees who have spoken up in recent months to demand higher wages, better health care or union representation.
“We’re encouraged that more and more Walmart employees are standing up for a fair day’s wage for a fair day’s work,” said Ellsworth resident John Curtis.
They also reiterated a common criticism of Walmart, supported by the Berkeley study, that Walmart’s low wages externalize the cost of healthcare and other social safety net benefits paid for by taxpayers.
Said protester Ann Roberts: “For me, this is about the discrepancy in wealth that the country’s gotten to, that the Walton family can have so much money and not pay a living wage. … It’s a drain on everybody because everybody has to pick up the cost of their health care, their food stamps.”
On its website, Walmart defends its jobs, saying that the company offers competitive wages, good benefits and a chance at a career. The company touts figures showing that 75 percent of management began as hourly employees and that 300,000 Walmart employees have worked at the company for more than 10 years, about 13 percent of its global workforce of 2.2 million.
Follow Mario Moretto on Twitter at @riocarmine.