Protesters greet Wal-Mart shoppers

PORTLAND, Ore. — Wal-Mart workers and supporters marched in protest at a number of stores nationwide Thursday and Friday, blasting the wages, benefits and treatment of employees of the world’s largest retailer.

The efforts seemed to do little to keep shoppers away, though — Wal-Mart said it was its best Black Friday ever.

In Paramount, Calif., authorities arrested a small group of protesters Friday outside a Wal-Mart. Elizabeth Brennan of Warehouse Workers United said nine people, including three Wal-Mart employees, were arrested shortly after noon for blocking the street outside the store in Paramount. At one point, however, more than 1,000 people blocked traffic outside the store, Sheriff’s Capt. Mike Parker told KNBC-TV.

In Lakewood, Colo., shoppers hesitated as they passed dozens of protesters outside a Wal-Mart but entered without incident. Some protesters held signs playing off of the retailing giant’s corporate slogan, “Live better,” accusing the company of corporate greed and underpaying its workers.

“This is the way you get a fair shake. You’ve got to fight for it. You’ve always had to,” said protester Charlie May, of the Industrial Workers of the World labor organization.

A union-backed group called OUR Walmart has said that it is holding an estimated 1,000 protests in 46 states. The exact number is unclear. Wal-Mart Stores Inc. has refuted that estimate, saying the figure is grossly exaggerated and that the protests involved few of its own employees.

A number of demonstrations and walk-outs occurred last week at stores but were scheduled to culminate on one of the year’s busiest shopping days. The size and impact of the protests varied greatly by site. OUR Walmart, made up of current and former Wal-Mart employees, was formed in 2010 to press the company for better working conditions. Wal-Mart has criticized the group for relying largely on other unions and non-employees to make up the ranks protesting outside its stores.

The retailer also filed an unfair labor practice charge with the National Labor Relations Board last week against the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union. The company said that the demonstrations organized by OUR Walmart threatened to disrupt its business and intimidate customers and associates.

Wal-Mart estimated that fewer than 50 associates participated in Thursday and Friday’s protests nationwide. Company spokesman Dan Fogleman said that the number of associates who missed their shifts during the two days of events is 60 percent lower than last year.

“It was proven last night — and again today — that the OUR Walmart group doesn’t speak for the 1.3 million Wal-Mart associates,” the company said in a statement.

The union group estimated that “hundreds” of employees participated nationwide.

Victoria Martinez, 29, marched in front of the store in Paramount on Black Friday. The Wal-Mart photo department employee worked her shift on Thanksgiving but skipped work on Friday to “speak out.” She said the company shows a lack of respect for employees, noting that she faced retaliation by local managers after speaking out about problems during an open discussion sponsored by the head office.

“I believe that when I started at this company, it was great,” said Martinez, who’s worked for Wal-Mart for seven years. “They’ve taken away everything that is great. “

Wal-Mart for many years has faced intense scrutiny over its wage and benefit policies and treatment of its workers. Fogleman says that the company provides some of the best jobs in the retail industry and that its wages and benefits typically meet or exceed those of competitors. The retailer maintains that it has many long-term employees and that its turnover rate is below the industry average.

The company, based in Bentonville, Ark., operates 10,400 stores in 27 countries.

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Robert Jablon in Los Angeles and Peter Banda in Lakewood, Colo. contributed to this report.

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