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Amid shopping, Wal-Mart protesters question wages

Workers and supporters march outside a local Walmart retail store on Black Friday Novm 23, 2012 in Milwaukee, Wisc. The protesters were calling for better wages and working conditions for the employees.

Before the day had even really begun, Wal-Mart, the nation’s largest retailer, announced that it had recorded its best Black Friday ever this year.  The nation's largest retailer got an early start on its holiday sales Thursday night, and says it counted nearly 10 million register transactions between 8 p.m. and midnight. Coming through the check out line were more than 1.8 million towels, 250,000 bicycles and 1.3 million TVs. 

On their way in to buy those things, customers in some stores around the country were met by protesters -- Wal-Mart workers and community supporters asking for better wages, benefits and working conditions. But were shoppers paying any attention? 

At the Wal-Mart in Duarte, Calif., near Los Angeles, about 50 people marched in front of the store. A dozen or so were Wal-Mart workers, including 24-year-old William Fletcher. He had a candy cane hanging from his T-shirt. A shopper gave it to him, he said, asking him why he was standing outside holding a picket sign on cold morning.

Fletcher told her he’s here because he thinks his company can afford to pay better wages. Like most Walmart workers, he works part time -- though he'd like to work more. And after four years at the company, he makes about $12,000 annually. He goes to food banks and lives with his mom, to save money. He says he hopes the protest today sends a message to the company, and to his customers. But he doesn’t blame people who are shopping here today. He shops at Wal-Mart too.

“We're paid so little,” he says, “in order to get by, if we're going to have any food that will last us a paycheck, we kind of have to shop here.”

That’s the dilemma for Jesus Ponce, who works at a fast food restaurant, and makes minimum wage. He was wheeling out a flat screen TV he'd just bought on special. He watched the protests for a while. “I support them,” he said. “But I struggle too.” 

Tony Yepez, a landscaper who was buying Christmas present for his daughter, said even though he shops at Wal-Mart, he doesn't like what he’s read about how the company treats its employees.

“It's bad,” he said. “But whatever's cheaper.”

A study released this week by the think tank Demos calculated that if large retailers like Wal-Mart raised hourly pay so that employees working full-time made at least $25,000 a year and covered those costs by raising prices, customers would pay about 15 cents more per shopping trip.  

Wal-Mart spokesman David Tovar said the company already has a lot to offer its 1.3 million employees. “We think we have great career opportunities at Wal-Mart,” he said, adding that company’s turnover rate is “lower than the industry average.”

About the author

Krissy Clark is the senior reporter for Marketplace’s Wealth & Poverty Desk.

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