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November 23. 2012 7:29PM

Walmart union protests fail to deter bargain-seeking crowds

Jamie Walsh faced a shopping dilemma: take advantage of Walmart's deals at the Salem store or support union-backed protesters demanding better pay and benefits. In the end, the Black Friday deals won the day.

Walsh, 42, wearing a sweatshirt from the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 2222, where her late brother-in-law was vice president, said she was aware of the union protests planned at Walmart locations around the country on Friday. Still, she decided to buy an $89 electric ride-in Jeep, a LeapPad tablet, a dollhouse, a Sony Corp. PlayStation and a $78 flatscreen television.

"It bothers me, but their prices are so good," said Walsh, who is from Dorchester, Mass., and works as a medical assistant at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

The United Food & Commercial Workers International Union had planned more than 1,000 demonstrations online and at Walmart stores around the country Friday to protest what it says are the retailer's manipulation of hours and benefits, efforts to keep people from working full time and discrimination against women and minorities.

The protests failed to reduce traffic at the world's largest retailer. Walmart said Friday that it had larger crowds than last year and drew about 22 million customers Thursday. The retailer said in a statement that it has sold more than 1.3 million televisions, 1.3 million dolls and 250,000 bicycles since its promotions began at 8 p.m. Thursday. Walmart said only 26 protests took place at stores Thursday night and fewer than 50 associates participated.

One worker walked out of the Walmart in Miami Gardens, Fla., Muhammad Malik, a community activist connected to the union, said in a telephone interview Thursday night. He organized what he estimated to be about 70 people, including what he said was about 30 Walmart employees, outside that store from about 7:45 p.m. to 9:15 p.m. Thursday.

In Dallas, protesters had been to two stores by 8 p.m., Janna Pea, another union organizer, said in a telephone interview. Pea said the group protested at the first store for 10 minutes before security kicked them off the property.

"We weren't able to do much," she said. The group began protesting in front of the second store as shoppers began filing in. Security forced them leave there, too. The group ended up standing on the side of the road near the entrance to the store's parking lot, she said.

The protests take place as the National Labor Relations Board weighs a complaint Walmart filed against the union Nov. 15 accusing it of violating federal labor laws by illegally picketing. The company said the union has tried to force the company to the bargaining table although it does not officially represent its employees.

Walmart asked the board for an investigation and immediate injunction. If the board rules in Walmart's favor, it would seek an injunction in district court to stop the protests.

On Nov. 20, organizers from the nonprofit OUR Walmart fought back by filing their own complaint with the labor board accusing Walmart of intimidating workers. The protesters are demanding more-predictable schedules, less-expensive health-care plans and minimum hourly pay of $13 with the option of working full-time.

Organizers have declined to say how many workers have been involved with the movement. Walmart has about 1.4 million employees and more than 4,500 stores and clubs in the United States.


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