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Why Wal-Mart May Respond to Black Friday Strike Threats, Adjust Wage Structure: Labor Expert

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So far, the company has called the coordinated efforts of Wal-Mart employees nothing but a publicity stunt. Not so, say experts.

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MINYANVILLE ORIGINAL When journalists visit the media relations page on Wal-Mart's (NYSE:WMT) website, they're asked to select from a drop-down menu the category that best describes the nature of their questions. But there's one option that's not on the list: Labor relations. One can assume that's going to change very soon.

Two weeks ago, on October 4, 88 Wal-Mart employees at various Wal-Mart stores staged the company's first ever job walk-out in the firm's history. Even though the workers didn't have union protection, their concerted efforts were legal. (See Why Wal-Mart Won't Fire Striking Workers -- and What That Means for You.) The employees who walked out were protesting the company's well-documented methods for discouraging unions and retaliating against hourly employees who push for change.

The day of the strike, we spoke by phone to a Wal-Mart employee at a Los Angeles-area store who had joined the walk-out. Manuela Rosales, 25, who has been working at Wal-Mart for two years, told us that her hourly wages were not enough to support her life with her two-year-old son. "Me personally, as a single mom, it's very hard. I go day-by-day with my paycheck, and sometimes I have to take loans," she said. "I don't think I should have to do that. And I don't want to go for welfare, either. Why would I go to welfare when I work for a company that could pay me more? A company that makes billions and billions of dollars?"

Since that day, the movement has grown considerably. According to organizers, strikes were carried out at 28 stores in 12 states last week. On Sunday, three workers at a store in Sapulpa, Oklahoma, left their shifts to protest outside with homemade placards. They were apparently encouraged by news coverage of the other strikes -- the difference being that the Sapulpa employees worked independently of the national group that's been coordinating the actions, OUR Walmart, which stands for Organization United For Respect at Wal-Mart, who are in turn backed by the United Food and Commercial Workers Union.

"I saw what was happening at stores in Dallas and around the country, and I did my research," Jeffrey Landry, 34, told the press. He also said Wal-Mart cut his schedule earlier this fall after he went to HR to discuss issues with departments to which he was being assigned.

Employees say they're often randomly moved between departments, which affects their pay and the quality of the customer service they can offer. Schedules can also vary widely, making it difficult for students or parents to attend school or make plans for child care. From the company's perspective, that kind of staffing flexibility is part of what keeps costs down and ensures no section is ever overstaffed or understaffed.

Frustrated with Wal-Mart's response to the strikes so far -- the company's spokesman has appeared on national talk shows saying that only a small percentage of employees have supported the "publicity stunt" -- OUR Walmart employees have since promised to go big, scaling up their efforts and vowing to take action again...on Black Friday. Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving, can be the most lucrative day of the year for many retailers.

A worker in Dallas told Salon that if Wal-Mart didn't address OUR Walmart demands, many associates will "make sure that Black Friday is memorable for [the company]." The actions could include strikes, leafleting to customers, and flash mobs.

Needless to say, that threat brought instant headlines in the national media and speculation about how many employees would be willing to take such a stand on the highest holy day of the shopping season.
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