News From Terre Haute, Indiana

November 24, 2012

Walmart working conditions, pay, benefits draw Unitarian protest

Arthur Foulkes
The Tribune-Star

TERRE HAUTE — Not everyone who entered Walmart on Friday was looking for a bargain.

Four representatives of Terre Haute’s First Unitarian Universalist Congregation went to the south-side Walmart on U.S. 41 with a letter calling on the retail giant to improve working conditions for its employees.

Delivered by Jennie Barrington, the congregation’s interim minister, Cathy McGuire, the social action committee chairperson and two other members, the letter stated the congregation’s concern with what it termed “poor working conditions, poor pay and lack of benefits for Walmart’s employees across the country.”

The letter, which was signed by 28 members of the Fruitridge Avenue congregation, stated they believe it is “immoral that Walmart…makes billions of dollars every year in profit on the backs of people who are not treated with dignity and respect. An adequate wage gives people respect and makes the local economy better. It probably cuts some crime as well.”

The four delivered the letter to a Walmart manager around 11 a.m. One employee with whom they spoke had worked on Thanksgiving until midnight and returned to work at 8 a.m. Friday morning, Barrington said.

“We have to speak up for them,” she said, in a telephone interview with the Tribune-Star later Friday. “As a Unitarian Universalist minister, I really do try to speak up for workers’ rights.”

The congregation’s action coincides with a larger number of similar steps by Unitarian Universalist congregations around the country. It also coincided with Black Friday, the biggest single shopping day of the year and a day on which protesters staged demonstrations at a number of Walmarts around the U.S.

The estimated number of Walmart employees taking part in Black Friday protests across the country varies according to the source. Nationwide efforts to organize the demonstrations were led by Organization United for Respect at Walmart, a union-backed, not-for-profit organization.

There were no reports of demonstrations Friday or late Thursday at Terre Haute Walmarts. One store employee said the east-side Walmart was packed with shoppers at 6 p.m. on Thanksgiving evening, awaiting Black Friday sales slated to begin at 8 p.m.

Walmart joined a number of other big retailers, such as Target and Toys R Us, by offering shoppers “Black Friday” deals on Thanksgiving evening. Market observers note that online sales were expected to continue climbing this Christmas season, leading “brick and mortar” stores to try new ways of luring customers, including earlier hours.

The Friday after Thanksgiving is known as Black Friday because it is the day on which many retailers turn profitable for the year.

Walmart employs approximately 1.4 million Americans. Defenders of the corporation say it increases living standards by offering lower-priced goods and provides employment opportunities for low-skilled workers that would otherwise not exist.

Reporter Arthur Foulkes can be reached at (812) 231-4232 or arthur.foulkes@tribstar.com.