ELLSWORTH, Maine — Activists and union members in Maine will tap into a national movement to protest low wages for Walmart workers on Black Friday. Picketers will be holding up signs and handing out flyers outside Walmart stores in Ellsworth, Scarborough, Augusta and Auburn on what will likely be the busiest shopping day of the year for the retailer.
The event’s organizers, in a press release issued this week, called Walmart employee salaries “poverty wages that have forced Walmart workers to rely on food drives even though they work at a company with $17 billion in profits.” They are asking the department store to commit to paying its full-time workers at least $25,000 a year.
OUR Walmart, an organization that advocates for the rights of Walmart workers, announced that 1,500 protests are being organized at stores across the country. Organizers in Maine have been in regular contact with the national group, though it is not officially organizing the activities here.
There were no Walmart employees expected to join the Maine protests, as of Wednesday afternoon.
“Right now it’s just allies in support of workers,” said Sarah Bigney, a mobilizer at Maine’s American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizers.
“We want to encourage Walmart workers if they’re dissatisfied to come forward, go public,” said John Curtis, who is helping to organize the protest in Ellsworth. “But we know in the conversations we’ve had with Walmart employees locally, everyone has told us, ‘Don’t use my name. I can’t lose my job, they’ll cut my hours.’”
A protest at the Walmart in Ellsworth last year drew only about 15 participants, but this year Curtis expects between 30 and 50 at the Ellsworth site. A similar event organized by the Southern Maine Worker’s Center in Scarborough drew about 30 participants last year, according to Doug Born, president of the Southern Maine Labor Council. Born hopes this year’s event will top that. Joe Mailey, who is vice president of the Western Maine Labor Council and is helping to organize in Auburn, expects six to 10 people to show up there.
Curtis explained that organizers are feeling emboldened by a finding by the National Labor Relations Board that Walmart fired and disciplined employees illegally for their involvement in last year’s Black Friday protest.
Walmart has denied those accusations. Walmart spokesperson Kory Lundberg called the NLRB’s action a “procedural step.”
“We will continue to work with the NLRB and we look forward to doing so,” he said Wednesday.
Mailey did not want to characterize Friday’s activities in Auburn as a demonstration, but said it would be more like an educational event.
“We want to show them that they’re not alone,” said Mailey of Walmart employees. “Hopefully we can educate some of the community as well.”
But Walmart countered that the average hourly wage for a full-time sales associate is $12.83, and the average wage for all associates, including part-timers is $11.83, according to Lundberg.
“That wage compares very favorably with any of our competitors in the retail industry,” he said.
He added, “It’s not really about where you start, but about the opportunities you have once you get in.
On it’s website, the company states: “About 75 percent of our store management teams started as hourly associates, and they earn between $50,000 and $170,000 a year.”