On Black Friday, the busiest shopping day of the year, tens of millions of Americans will travel to Walmart stores to look for holiday discounts on computers, toys and cellphones as well as to buy groceries and basic household items. But at more than 1,600 of Walmart's 4,000 stores, shoppers will be greeted by Walmart employees handing out leaflets and holding picket signs -- "Walmart: Stop Bullying, Stop Firing, Start Paying" and "We're Drawing a Line at the Poverty Line: $25,000/year" -- protesting the company's abusive labor practices, including poverty-level wages, stingy benefits, and irregular work schedules that make it impossible for their families to make ends meet.
The Black Friday rallies and demonstrations represent a dramatic escalation of the growing protest movement among employees of America's largest private employer. But they also represent the vanguard of a sharp challenge to the nation's widening economic divide and the declining standard of living among the majority of Americans.
National leaders and community groups from every corner of the country will join Walmart workers at the Black Friday protests. Members of Congress, women's groups, and environmental and consumer organizations have all pledged support, saying that the Walmart workers' fight is a fight for all Americans. This week 226 organizations -- including the National Organization for Women, the NAACP, the Sierra Club, MoveOn.Org, the U.S. Student Association, Dream Defenders, and the AFL-CIO -- sent a letter to Walmart chairman and owner Rob Walton calling for Walmart to raise pay to $15 an hour and provide consistent, full-time work for its workers; provide working women with good jobs that pay decent wages; and create a workplace that fosters inclusivity, appreciation and understanding.
Last week U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Massachusetts) and U.S. Rep. George Miller (D-California) spoke at a congressional briefing to discuss a business model that some are calling the "Walmart Economy," defined as an economy "where a few profit significantly on the backs of the working poor and a diminishing middle class." Joined by Walmart workers, Warren said, "It is good to hear workers' voices in the halls of Congress. No one in this country should work full-time and still live in poverty, and that's what raising the minimum wage is all about."
It is sometimes difficult to recognize historical events as they unfold, but it is likely that future generations will look at these Walmart protests as a major turning point that helped move the nation in a new direction, similar to the sit-down strikes among Flint auto workers in 1937, the Woolworth lunch-counter sit-ins by civil-rights activists in 1960, and the first Earth Day in 1970, which jump-started the environmental movement.
The swelling anger over inequality began with the Occupy Wall Street demonstrations in September 2011 and spread quickly from New York City to cities across the country. The Occupiers were soon evicted from the parks and other places they temporarily inhabited, but the movement's message has continued to resonate with the American public. Activists as well as many politicians and pundits have embraced its "1 percent vs. 99 percent" theme, which has quickly become part of Americans' everyday conversations.
Public opinion polls reveal that a significant majority of Americans believe that there is too much power in the hands of a few rich people and corporations, that our political and economic system unfairly favors the wealthy, and that wealthy people don't pay their fair share of taxes. Surveys also document that Americans think that people who work full-time should not be trapped in poverty. A Pew survey conducted earlier this year found that 73 percent of Americans -- including 90 percent of Democrats, 71 percent of independents, and 53 percent of Republicans -- favor raising the federal minimum wage from its current level of $7.25 an hour to $10.10 an hour. Many think it should be higher.
But public opinion alone doesn't translate into changes in politics and public policy. For that to occur, people have to take collective action. The past year has witnessed a growing protest movement for social and economic justice. Workers at fast-food chains like McDonalds, Taco Bell, Burger King, and Wendy's have mounted several protest actions, including one-day strikes at more than a thousand restaurants in cities around the country, demanding a base wage of $15 an hour. Earlier this year Seattle adopted a citywide $15-an-hour minimum wage -- part of a growing wave of municipal minimum-wage laws.
From the police and prosecutors in Ferguson to Walmart and its owners, abuse of power by the few is keeping many Americans living in fear. Every day average Americans must worry about police violence, the possibility of being unjustly fired, and being unable to find the next meal for their children.
Our communities cannot thrive when they are held back from earning a decent living by the biggest corporation in our country.