Sarah Heinonen, a 10-year Walmart employee, spent Black Friday in front of the Walmart store. Altogether with two other employees, Heinonen talked to customers and hand out fliers to spread the word on labor conditions of her Walmart colleagues.
Massachusetts and Rhode Island law prevent employees from working on Thanksgiving. Walmart associates like Heinonen came to work at 1 a.m., technically not on Thanksgiving. Walmart employees in the rest of the country were required to get to work by 8 p.m. interrupting their Thanksgiving dinner. “Unfortunately, Walmart does not take into account that people spend time on Thanksgiving with their families,” says Heinonen.
Heinonen describes herself as an individual associate who seeks justice for Walmart employees. “We are standing up for decent wages, consistent hours and decent health care,” she says.
With 49 stores in Massachusetts alone, Walmart employs 11,694 people. Many of them are part-time employees, working four or five hours per day. Like many other retailers, Walmart offers low wages for its associates, just a little above minimum state wage, which is $8 in Massachusetts.
Heinonen’s protest originated from her story as a Walmart employee. “I have been working here almost 11 years and I make $12.30 an hour,” says Heinonen. “Most people I know who work there, they are part-timers, they don’t have many hours and what they have for wages, approximately is $9.”
Many labor unions in Massachusetts criticize Walmart’s policy toward its employees. According to Thomas Hynes, a leader of Pro Labor Alliance, Walmart trains employees how to get food stamps from the government in order to stay afloat.
“They try to explain to their associates how to use some of the government programs to assist them in the areas where their wages would not allow them to survive on their own,” says Hynes.
The issue of medical care raises even more concerns. Hynes explains that Walmart hires part-time associates so workers and their families do not qualify for health benefits.
But Walmart utilizes even trickier strategies. Like many big corporations, the retail chain receives direct funds from local governments interested in keeping big employers in the the area.
According to The New York Times, Walmart received at least $80.5 million in local government incentives during the period of 2005-2012.Calls for fair wages are some of the most frequent requests from Walmart employee advocates. However, restrictions from Walmart’s management obstructs workers from fighting actively for their rights. Sarah Heinonen claims, “Walmart has done several intimidations to their workers to prevent from organizing.”
Heinonen acknowledges that interest among workers to learn about rights grows. Nevertheless, fear prevails. “The discussions are going on, but most people are afraid to lose their jobs,” says Heinonen.
According to a Walmart official statement, the number of protesters on this year’s Black Friday across the country was insignificant, and the volume of sales was a success for the company.
However, protests took place in 100 cities across the country and marked the biggest number in Walmart history. Three Massachusetts cities joined the protests.
Another action took place in Framingham, Mass, right on Thanksgiving night. A group of protesters stood in front of Walmart with lit letters saying Respect for Workers. Each protester carried a big letter made of glowing wire and plastic.
Lane Hall, a leader of Overpass Light Brigade, explored the idea of using illumination to attract media attention. His philosophy of protests is quite simple – try to use positive messages. “It’s really hard for someone to argue against respect to workers, we always try to keep it positive,” says Lane.
Walmart workers’ advocates in Massachusetts plan to continue their efforts. They keep in mind a case sent to court in 2009. At that time Walmart agreed to pay $40 million in compensation for overtime pay, lack of rest and meal breaks to 87,700 Massachusetts employees.
In general, Walmart workers are interested in the success of the company, as it is one of the biggest employers for local communities. Sarah Heinonen explains, “It’s not that we are asking people not to shop in Walmart, it’s not that we want them to boycott it, we want people to be able to shop freely.”
But things can change, Heinonen believes. “We are not going to keep quiet, we are not going to lay down and take whatever they hand us.”