« Continue Browsing

e-mail article Print     e-mail article E-mail

John Lundy, Forum News Service, Published November 29 2013

Labor activists protest Wal-Mart with pizza

HERMANTOWN, Minn. – A group of labor activists put a Minnesota Nice spin on a protest at the Wal-Mart store here Friday morning.

Shouting no chants and waving no signs, 14 people brought 36 pizzas into the store about 10 a.m., hoping to follow a Wal-Mart worker to the break room and leave the pizzas for employees there.

It was their way of calling attention to what they consider a failure by the gigantic retailer to pay its frontline employees a living wage, said Zach Sias, field coordinator of the Northeast Area Labor Council, and one of the protest’s organizers.

“We’re trying to draw attention to the fact that a lot of these associates … simply can’t afford to work full time and get their needs met,” said Sias, as he and others waited in the parking lot for the pizzas to arrive.

A short time later, Tamara Jones, union representative for Local 1189 of the United Food and Commercial Workers, pulled her pie-laden car into the store’s parking lot, which still contained many vehicles carrying shoppers in search of bargains. The pizzas were purchased for $600 from Pizza Man, a downtown Duluth pizzeria that pays its employees living wages, Sias said.

A number of protests targeting Wal-Mart took place across the country on Black Friday, coordinated by a group called OUR Wal-Mart, which is an affiliate of the UFCW. An NBC video showed protesters outside a Chicago Wal-Mart store chanting and waving signs. Ten protesters were arrested there, and another 13 in suburban Dallas, according to media reports.

But at the Hermantown store, the only item being carried besides pizza was a U.S. flag in the hands of retiree Scot Bol, who said he’s an advocate of collective bargaining.

Jones and Sias said that as far as they knew, theirs was the only group delivering pizzas to Wal-Mart employees.

But a Wal-Mart spokesman was unimpressed.

“It’s not unusual for (OUR Wal-Mart) to find new ways to put a media angle on what they want to do,” said Kory Lundberg, a spokesman for the Arkansas-based corporation. “They’ve been doing this for the better part of the year, and there’s nothing really new about it.”

Both sides have their talking points.

Sias said the Walton family that owns Wal-Mart makes $25,000 in dividends every minute, and their employees ought to at least make that much in a year. Instead, he said, many make the minimum wage, which in Minnesota is $7.25 per hour. Another purpose of Friday’s protest was to get behind an effort to raise the state’s minimum wage to $9.50, he said.

But Lundberg said 99 percent of Wal-Mart employees make more than federal and state minimum wages. Moreover, the average hourly wage for full-time employees is $12.81, and the average combined wage for full-time and part-time employees is $11.83.

“The majority of folks that work in our stores, hourly folks, are full time,” he added. “That is not something a lot of retailers can say.”

But Wal-Mart’s compensation claims are inflated because they include managerial pay in their figures, Jones argued. And the average Lundberg cited still isn’t enough, she said.

But many Wal-Mart employees are promoted, Lundberg said. Seventy-five percent of its managers started out as hourly workers, and 160,000 of its 1.3 million employees will be promoted this year.

On Friday morning, Sias and Jones led the pizza protest group into the store, but they didn’t get close to the employee break room. Market manager Brandon Sharp politely but firmly turned them back, telling them they could leave the pizzas by the door.

Sias said he wasn’t surprised by the reception, and he was matter-of-fact about the results.

“We were simply trying to give them pizza, and we hope that the employees get that,” he said.