Walmart’s Heart of Darkness

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November 26, 2012 in Labor & Economy

As Black Friday approached, I couldn’t help but remember a vivid scene in The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver where an entire Congo village is overrun by a swarm of ants, creating a human stampede, a living wall of death. The only thing that saves one of the missionary’s daughters are two words of advice that would serve any Walmart shopper well – “elbows out.”

This year, Walmart’s Black Friday customers had to contend with a new challenge: striking workers and their community supporters, who staged actions at stores across the country. Judging by the breadth and intensity of the protests, Walmart diehards had better get used to facing picket lines, and not just on the busiest shopping day of the year.

The origins of the “Black Friday” label are contentious, with commercial interests arguing that it lies in the accounting term of being profitable, in the black, while the more accepted version is that Philadelphia officers created the term to refer to the dangerous amount of vehicular and pedestrian traffic created by shoppers.i Black Friday has been the busiest shopping day since 2003 (with the exception of 2004), has spawned other shopping trends like Cyber Monday and has exported this frenzy to other countries. It has also created darker trends.

On November 28, 2008, hundreds of people waited outside a New York Walmart in exasperated anticipation. When the doors finally opened the crowd surged in, claiming the life of an employee. Walmart spent $2 million fighting and appealing a $7,000 OSHA fine, only to have it upheld in March of 2011.ii According to the National Retail Federation, this was the first ever death during Black Friday sales, and the trend in violence has continued, with 24 shoppers injured across nine Walmarts last year.iii Also last year, Walmart fired 73-year-old Jan Sullivan for grabbing onto a customer’s sweater as she fell from being pushed down by the aggressive shopper; she once proudly considered herself part of the “Walmart family” until her 22 years with the company abruptly ended. Sullivan’s firing was hardly an aberration, however — Walmart employees have long been the subjects of labor abuses.

Lately, actions by Warehouse Workers United (WWU) have led to more than $1.3 million in citations resulting from inspections in Walmart-controlled warehouses in California’s Inland Empire.iv

Recently, Walmart’s economic growth has fallen short of investor expectations, and its plans for overseas expansion have slowed in the face of a major bribery scandal in Mexico. v This has led the company to look inward, to the nation’s inner cities, the last domestic bastions yet to be fully penetrated by Walmart.

This year’s Black Friday strikes and protests were a wake-up call that Walmart faces a major battle in the country’s urban centers. The message was clear: If Walmart wants America’s major cities, it will have to cooperate with workers to ensure the future prosperity of these communities.

Notes:

i “The Origins of “Black Friday,” Ben Zimmer, Word Routes (November 25, 2011).

ii “US Department of Labor’s OSHA applauds decision upholding citation against Wal-Mart Stores Inc. in crowd management fatality case.” U.S. Department of Labor news release. March 25, 2011. Available online at: http://www.osha.gov/pls/oshaweb/owadisp.show_document?p_table=NEWS_RELEASES&p_id=19500, accessed 11.19.12.

iii “Black Friday turns violent at 9 U.S. Wal-Mart stores; at least 24 people injured.” Associated Press. November 25, 2011. Available online at: http://www.freep.com/article/20111125/FEATURES13/111125011/Black-Friday-turns-violent-9-U-S-Wal- Mart-stores-least-24-people-injured, accessed 11.19.12.

iv “Wal-Mart’s Labor Problem: Limits to the Low-Road Business Model,” John Marshall, Making Change at Walmart, Availbable online at: http://makingchangeatwalmart.org/files/2012/10/WalmartsLaborProblem.pdf, accessed 11.19.12.

v “Wal-Mart rethinks overseas strategy, nixes planned stores,” Anne D’Innocenzio, Associated Press, August 16, 2012.#

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