(The Root) — Walking off the job on Black Friday is not something Wal-Mart associate Colby Harris takes lightly, but that is exactly what he says he plans to do on what has traditionally been considered the busiest shopping day of the year. On Wednesday, Harris, along with other organizers of Wal-Mart's non-unionized employees known as OUR Walmart, announced they would strike on Black Friday, Nov. 23, if their workplace demands were not addressed.
The 22-year-old Harris, who has worked at Wal-Mart's Lancaster store outside Dallas for almost three years, has become an unlikely activist. "Not to play the race card, but I feel like for African Americans in particular, we've been facing oppression for hundreds of years. We should really feel obligated to stand up for something like this," Harris told The Root.
Wal-Mart is the largest retailer in the world and says it is the largest employer of blacks in the U.S. According to company data, 18 percent or more than 255,000 of Wal-Mart's 1.4 million workforce were African American in 2011. The total minority workforce at that time was 36 percent. However, said Harris, it's not just blacks who should be standing up or walking out, but everyone.
Wal-Mart strikes began Oct. 4 when about 70 workers in Los Angeles walked off the job. By Wednesday of last week the union assisting in organizing workers said employees in at least 28 stores in 12 states were picketing. Though the movement isn't large in scope at this point, these are the first retail-workers strikes in the company's 50-year history. The organizers believe they'll gain momentum to make an impact on Black Friday, an assertion the company refutes.
At issue, according to Dan Schlademan, director of the United Food and Commercial Workers' Making Change at Walmart campaign, are two main points: an end to what employees say is retribution by Wal-Mart for speaking out against the company, and improved working conditions, including higher salaries and better access to affordable health care.
When Harris started as an associate, he was making $7.70 an hour; three years later he is now making $8.90 and is a full-time employee with health care premiums he says he cannot afford. (By comparison the current federal minimum wage is $7.25 per hour. However, state minimum wages may be higher, and if so, a worker is entitled to be paid the higher rate.)
Harris was one of 200 protesters who traveled to Wal-Mart's headquarters in Bentonville, Ark., to deliver that message during the company's annual meeting with financial analysts. He says it was threats of retribution that kept other Lancaster workers from walking out when he did on Tuesday. Harris attributes his initiative to his grandmother Merlene Harris. He says she was one of first Black Panthers in the Dallas area. "My family raised me to believe you that you stand up for what's right. If something's wrong, you speak up. So that's why I'm pretty much motivated to do this."
With regard to strikers' concerns, Wal-Mart spokesman Dan Fogleman, in a conversation with The Root, countered, "We have some of the best jobs in retail." He also said, "More than 161,000 associates were promoted over the last year, and more than 80 percent were getting bonuses." As for the threat of a Black Friday strike, Fogleman said, "We can't speculate on what may or may not happen." He also called the protest on Wednesday outside the company's annual investors meeting "a union-led, union-funded publicity stunt" and added that companion protests around the country had not affected store operations.
Dominic Ware, a part-time associate at the Wal-Mart in San Leandro, Calif., was also part of the same Wednesday protest, which drew about 200 picketers to the company's headquarters. The 25-year-old makes $8.25 an hour working in the store's parking lot helping customers to their cars and handling carts. He told The Root the job "seemed like a good opportunity to work my way up." Now he says he is having second thoughts because it has been almost a year and he is still waiting to be hired full time with benefits, something he said he was promised.
Ware, who is responsible for two of his brother's children, said he also took the job to set an example "that hard work can get you somewhere."
Harris said so many African-American men are expected to fail in life and choose the wrong path that it is disheartening "when you try to do right, and you work for a company that gives you nothing. That's the reason why so many young black males go to the streets. I am not making an excuse for it. I'm just saying these corporate companies make it so hard on you to make a living, you feel like your options are so low."
Columbia University professor and Colorlines.com contributor Dorian Warren told Salon the walkouts were a pivotal moment for Wal-Mart workers' efforts to organize the staunchly union-free corporation.
Those efforts are gaining support, with several groups committing to stand in solidarity with workers, including ColorofChange.org, which exists to strengthen black America's political voice. Executive director Rashad Robinson told The Root that it's not just jobs for which they are fighting. "We can campaign for more jobs, but we want jobs that are going to help move people into the middle class or give people a living wage," he said. He added that "unless everyday people stand up and support them and the government works to raise minimum wage and put greater regulations on corporations that misuse workers, we're going to continue to be in a situation where poor folks are held at the bottom and rich folks just get richer."
Pastor Edwin Jones of Living Faith Baptist Church and International Ministries said if it comes down to a Black Friday strike, he will rally supporters. The pastor, who has been very vocal in his hometown of Washington, D.C., about the prospect of Wal-Mart moving in, said, "If our calls continue to be ignored and rebuffed, we will be going to stores with workers on Black Friday to call for change."
Julie Walker is a New York-based freelance journalist. Follow her on Twitter.