Protests by Walmart workers that are spreading across the country came to Federal Way on Thursday, with between 20 and 30 employees leading a rally demanding better working conditions and pay.
The employees, from six Western Washington Walmart stores, gathered outside the store on South 314th Street, cheered on by at least 200 supporters. Many were from other unions and organizations including SPEEA, the National Organization for Women and One America, an immigrants’ rights group. The large group marched between a staging area at the end of the parking lot and the front of the store, chanting and talking to customers.
Sara Gilbert, who works at the Federal Way Walmart, said she went on strike to stand up for the dignity of workers and their rights to complain without fear of retaliation.
In an interview, she spoke of her struggle to make ends meet even while working fulltime at Walmart. She earns $11.65 an hour and is her family’s only source of income since her husband was laid off. They and their five children rely on state assistance for housing, food and healthcare.
Walmart spokespeople have said that workers in Washington earn an average wage of $13 an hour. Gilbert said she knew of only a few people who earn that much, and they’ve worked for the company for decades.
Beyond a better wage, Gilbert said she wants to be treated with respect. She decided to speak out about work conditions after her manager came up behind her while she was bent, restocking shelves, and adjusted Gilbert’s pants to cover some exposed skin.
Gilbert said the manager tried to turn it into a laughing matter. Gilbert complained, but she said no action was taken.
“They treat it like it’s a joke, but it’s not a joke to me,” she said.
The Federal Way strike was organized by OUR Walmart, an employee group being supported by organized labor unions. It’s a continuation of protests and other actions that began this fall, when workers started walking off the job ahead of Walmart’s annual investor meeting. Job actions have continued since then. Labor leaders said Thursday that a thousand more protests are planned ahead of Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving and one of the biggest shopping days of the year.
Those protests will include strikes, picketing in front of stores and flash mobs, as workers try to educate customers, Dan Schlademan of the United Food and Commercial Workers said Thursday in a national conference call.
Walmart has referred to these protests as publicity stunts.
UPDATE, 3:55 p.m.: I’ve received a statement from Walmart. Here it is:
This is just another exaggerated publicity campaign aimed at generating headlines to mislead our customers and associates.
We have a great group of associates at Walmart. We’ll have more than one million associates working throughout the holiday weekend and they’re excited about our Black Friday plans this year. This is the Super Bowl for retailers and we’re ready.
We’ve been working on our Black Friday plans for almost a year now and we’re prepared to have a great event. Our associates care about providing a great customer experience on Black Friday and we’re confident that’s what customers will have at Walmart this year.
The fact is, many of these ongoing tactics being orchestrated by the UFCW are unlawful and we will act to protect our associates and customers from the ongoing illegal conduct.