AUGUSTA — About a dozen protesters, who accused Walmart of paying wages so low many of its workers rely on government assistance to make ends meet, held signs outside the store on Black Friday before briefly entering the store and being told to leave.
Local activists from MoveOn.org, as well as union leaders, chose the biggest shopping day of the year and the nation’s largest retail store to decry what they said are low wages and poor working conditions. The local demonstrators joined others in similar protests at Walmarts across the country.
“I’m here today because I see Walmart as the ultimate in corporate greed,” said Mike Poland, of East Madison, a representative of a United Steelworkers union local based in Skowhegan. “They pay most of their people a substandard wage. So the United States taxpayer is subsidizing Walmart (by providing financial assistance to its workers). If they paid their workers a better wage, and sold more things made in the United States, I would shop there.”
Priscilla Jenkins, of Winthrop, a representative of MoveOn.org, said she planned to deliver a letter to the Augusta Walmart’s manager, but neglected to bring a hard copy of the letter with her. Jenkins, also a Winthrop town councilor, planned to show the manager an electronic version of the letter on her cellphone, but the manager did not speak with the protesters when a handful of them entered the store.
Instead, assistant Walmart managers told the group they had to leave the store and the parking lot, which are both private property. The assistant managers declined comment, referring a reporter to the firm’s national media relations office.
When the protesters were asked to leave, Jenkins used a profanity while arguing with the assistant managers about whether the parking lot was private property.
The letter Jenkins had hoped to deliver, which she said was also sent to Walmart’s corporate headquarters in Bentonville, Ark., criticized the firm for paying low wages.
There appeared to be no Walmart workers among the nine adults and two children who were part of the demonstration in Augusta that started late Friday morning. Organizers of national demonstrations said Walmart workers were involved in protests.
Demonstrators said Walmart employees average $8.80 an hour, a figure Walmart officials dispute.
Katie Cody, a spokeswoman for Walmart, said the company is proud of the benefits and pay offered to its employees.
She said the average hourly rate is $12.81, “which is much higher than the industry average.”
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average hourly wage for general merchandise department store occupations was $12.05 in 2012.
David Tovar, vice president of corporate communications for Walmart, said in an emailed statement that Walmart provides wages “on the higher end of the retail average with full-time and part-time associates making, on average, close to $12 an hour.” He said full-time workers average $12.81 an hour.
Tovar said in an emailed statement that Friday was the most successful Black Friday in Walmart’s history.
“Black Friday is a big stage, and we’re one of the biggest players in the retail industry,” he said. “We’re not surprised that those trying to change our industry are using this platform to get their message out, and we respect their right to be heard. We expect some demonstrations at our stores today, although far fewer than what our critics are claiming and with hardly any actual Walmart associates participating.”
Protester Natasha Mayers, of Whitefield, said she was especially motivated to come when she read a recent report that said Walmart could increase employees’ pay to more than $14 an hour without raising prices if it redirected bonuses now paid to its top corporate leaders to hourly employees.
Mayers carried a tall sign that listed the per-hour pay rate of factory workers around the world, many of whom make items that are sold at Walmart.
The wages she listed ranged from 20 cents an hour in Pakistan to 69 cents an hour in the Dominican Republic.
Kim Cormier, of Benton, held a small cardboard sign that said “No TPP,” which she said refers to the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a free trade proposal being negotiated between the U.S. and other countries, which she said would hurt workers. Cormier is a former Benton select board member who was among a group of demonstrators arrested and convicted for refusing to leave the governor’s residence in November 2011 as part of an Occupy Augusta protest.
She said the agreement is another example of the corporate takeover of our government. Cormier said she can’t understand why conservatives would support Walmart when many of its workers need government assistance to help pay for their basic needs. But she said both Republicans and Democrats are taking money from corporations, and are influenced by that money.
John Upham, of Litchfield, also a representative of MoveOn.org, said Walmart will make millions on Black Friday but employees likely won’t benefit from increased pay despite those profits. He said Walmart is not alone.
“You have inequalities and corporate greed everywhere,” Upham said.
Several of the protesters went inside Walmart Friday, walked to the customer service desk and asked to speak to the manager.
Two of them held signs inside the store, within a few feet of the busy cash registers, both suggesting Walmart workers deserved to earn a living wage.
After a few minutes, a small group of assistant managers told the group they had to leave, with one telling protesters, “We respect your opinion,” but telling them they had to leave or the authorities would be called to make them.
“If you value our opinion, you would listen,” responded Upham.
Cody said Walmart employees were focused on taking care of customers and she anticipated the protests would cause little or no disruption to shoppers.
Keith Edwards — 621-5647[email protected]