They've finally had enough. After years of financial and emotional exploitation, Walmart workers, for the first time in the corporation's 50-year history, are striking on Black Friday, the busiest shopping day of the year in the United States. Workers will make history tomorrow by taking part in over 1,000 protests and civil disobedience actions across the country , from Richmond, California, to Miami, Florida.
Walmart's non-union workers are calling for better conditions, living wages, the possibility of working full-time, an end to retaliation for speaking out, and basic dignity. We should expect nothing less from a corporation that posted $3.64bn in profits for the third quarter alone and has already registered $444bn in sales this year.
Walmart heir Robson Walton , whose net worth is $26bn, took in more than $420m in dividends last year, while the average employee makes $8.81 an hour or $15,500 a year. The Walton family has more wealth than the bottom 42 per cent of American families combined. In 2010, CEO Michael Duke's annual salary of $35m gives him more in an hour than a full-time employee makes in an entire year.
Workers like 35-year-old Raymond Bravo are putting their jobs on the line by speaking out and striking, but they are tired of the exploitation. While most of us are sleeping, Bravo, an overnight maintenance associate, is waxing the floors, cleaning the registers and making sure the store is ready for the next day's shoppers.
He's worked at the Walmart in Richmond, California, for 18 months, works 32 hours a week and makes $9.85 an hour. He says he's asked for 40 hours a week, but his manager refuses to hire him full-time.
Depending on government assistance
A third of Walmart's employees work less than 28 hours per week and have no benefits. "A lot of people are afraid to speak out," he says. "When I try to hold my assistant manager accountable, they cut my hours."
Bravo says the support workers are receiving across the country is empowering and gives them the strength they need to keep going. "It's deep," he says.
"It makes us want to do even more. It makes you want to put in more effort. It's hard to explain. It feels hella good. It's crazy on the news and it's like, damn, I'm part of this. I know they're going to teach this in schools in the future."
The striking workers are asking citizens to boycott the world's largest corporation on Black Thursday and Friday. Yes, several Walmart stores will open tonight at 8pm, forcing workers to leave their families.
And if you do go shopping, Bravo asks you to "please walk up to the associates and tell them you appreciate them because we don't get appreciation from management," he says.
"When I told my manager that there are more associates than management, he got really mad. We're finally coming together. It's on."
It's been incredible to watch this movement explode over the past few months. It all started on June 4 when eight striking Mexican guest workers in Breaux Bridge, Louisiana, accused CJ's Seafood, which sells the majority of its crawfish to Walmart, of threatening them with violence, forcing them to peel and boil crawfish for up to 24 hours straight without overtime pay and locking them in the plant.
That same day, the workers, who were hired under the H-2B visa programme, which allows companies to hire foreign workers for temporary jobs, filed complaints with the Department of Labor and the Equal Employment Commission.
In July, Southern California warehouse workers who move goods for Walmart, filed a complaint with the state's Division of Occupational Safety and Health detailing more than a dozen violations, including no access to clean water, wage abuses, broken equipment and unreasonable and unsafe moving quotas.
Workers say they are denied access to medical care, are told they will be laid off if they can't work while injured, and are often blocked inside the trailers they are loading for up to 30 minutes with no exit.
Because their wages are so low, 25 per cent of all Walmart warehouse workers depend on government assistance to provide for their families and 37 per cent work more than one job, according to Warehouse Workers for Justice .
On September 28, Southern California warehouse workers returned to work after a 15-day strike that included a six-day, 50-mile pilgrimage for safe jobs. "We no longer feel like we are working in the shadows," said Carlos Martinez, a warehouse worker who went on strike and participated in the 50-mile WalMarch from the warehouses in the Inland Empire to Downtown Los Angeles.
"We've never had this much attention on our working conditions and I have never felt this much support. I feel ecstatic going back to work and proud that we have all stood together as a team."
Horrific business practices
In October, workers walked off the job in more than 12 cities and held protests at more than 200 stores across the country, with the support of national and local leaders of OUR Walmart. At that point, the national media could no longer ignore the workers' calls for respect and dignity.
"No matter how hard we work, my husband and I can't catch up on our bills," said Charlene Fletcher, an OUR Walmart leader from Duarte, California. Charlene has worked at Walmart for 2-1/2 years and her husband Greg has been there for six years. They have two children, ages two and five.
"We just found out that we are both scheduled to work on Thanksgiving Day instead of being home with our kids. It's heartbreaking to miss the holiday with them, and it's just one more way that Walmart is showing its disregard for our families. But when our co-workers speak out about problems like these, Walmart turns their schedules upside down, cuts their hours and even fires people. We're going on strike for an end to Walmart's attempts to silence its workers."
In addition to cutting hours and firing workers who speak out, Walmart tried to prevent the strike by suing the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union, the strike's main supporter. This desperate attempt to silence workers proves that the strikes are working.
These actions are about a lot more than Walmart's horrific business practices, which have been written about and documented for years. These strikes are about a ruthless capitalist system that exploits workers as multinationals post record profits and CEOs and high- level executives make millions, or in the case of the Walmart heirs, billions.
What the ruling class doesn't seem to understand is that they can only push people so far before they break and say enough is enough. Corporations like Walmart have the cash, resources and lawyers to file endless lawsuits, but the workers have their dignity and no amount of money or profit can take that away.
Watch this video of Walmart workers who can't afford enough to eat; can't afford housing; borrow money from each other to make ends meet; are bullied by management for speaking out; are tired of the discrimination; and were fired for speaking out.
Find a Black Friday action in your area , support these workers and demand an end to the exploitation and ongoing injustice. As the workers say, "Together, we are stronger than we are alone."
Rose Aguilar is the host of Your Call, a daily call-in radio show on KALW in San Francisco.
Follow her on Twitter: @roseaguilar