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[24 comments]

Cameras Roll for Walmart 'Worker' Protests

November 26, 2012

While the lead retail story on the evening news this past weekend was far and away Black Friday mania, the secondary one in many markets dealt with the union-led protests at several dozen to hundreds of Walmart's across the country.

The facts get murky quickly.

The United Food & Commercial Workers International Union claimed it had commitments to support more than 1,000 demonstrations at Walmart stores around the country on Thanksgiving night and Black Friday. Handing out fliers and holding signs that read "Walmart = greed" and "Walmart = 1%," the protesters included union members and local community activists as well as some Walmart employees.

The group, OUR Walmart, claimed hundreds of Walmart employees did not report to work Friday as part of a formal strike. The protests were said to be aimed not at union recognition but fighting the retaliation workers have faced over the years around wages, benefits and other issues.

Walmart refuted those charges and also countered that union organizers "grossly exaggerated" both the number of rallies and the participation by Walmart employees. Walmart indicated in a statement that it was aware of only a "few dozen" protests at its stores with the number of associates that missed their scheduled shift on Friday being down 60 percent from Black Friday in 2011.

"We had our best Black Friday ever and OUR Walmart was unable to recruit more than a small number of associates to participate in these made for TV events," Walmart said in the statement. "Press reports are now exposing what we have said all along — the large majority of protesters aren't even Walmart workers."

Still, local networks and newspapers covered what appeared to be at least several small protests at Walmart stores. In Paramount, CA, nine were arrested for blocking traffic.

"What's most inspiring is that we find the workers are standing up themselves for respect," Eric Lee, president of the Los Angeles chapter of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, said on a conference call, reported by The New York Times. "They have the support of our entire community."

FINANCIALS:     [NYSE:WMT] [ ]

Discussion Questions:

How would you characterize the state of employer/employee relationship across the retail industry today? Are consumers concerned with retail employee compensation and treatment and could this become an issue for employers?

While we value unfettered opinion, we urge you to show respect and courtesy for people or companies about whom you comment. Keep in mind that this is a public, professional business discussion. RetailWire reserves the right to edit or refuse the publication of remarks that we deem unsuitable. We may also correct for unintended spelling and grammatical errors.

Instant Poll:

How would you characterize the state of employer/employee relationship across the retail industry today?

Comments:

My concern is for the employees of Walmart brave enough to walk the picket lines in support of their fellow workers. I wonder how many will still be employed by the end of the week. It will not matter to Walmart. They can fill the voids easily with the large unemployment numbers.

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Ed Rosenbaum, CEO, The Customer Service Rainmaker, Rainmaker Solutions

Retail is poised for what I call "The Great Rehumanization." Over the past 30 years, the occupation of retail salesperson has gone from being respectable work that one could raise a family doing, to becoming a notch above slave labor. The median hourly wage of retail workers in the U.S, is $9.34/hr. If properly indexed to inflation, Federal minimum wage should be North of $10.00.

The work has gone from being vital and engaging to mind-numbing and devoid of skill. Most big-box retail employees exist to move things from one place to another and keep the inventory system happy.

But all of this is soon going to reach a breaking point. Stores like Walmart are already beginning to move in the direction of complete automation. Within 5 years, there will be little need to have any human interaction in a big box store at all. We are rapidly approaching the point where the performance return on low-paid human staff will be so poor, that automation will be the only viable alternative.

At the other end of the spectrum, retailers like Nordstrom and Burberry are using technology to empower a new level of personal service and engagement to create remarkable in-store experiences. Highly skilled and highly paid Brand Ambassadors are the essence of this strategy -- people capable of forging an emotional connection with their customers.

The days of treating people like low-paid machines are coming to a close.

Shameless Plug: There's much more on this topic in my book, "The Retail Revival: Reimagining Business in the New Age of Consumerism," coming February 2013.

Doug Stephens, President, Retail Prophet

Walmart has a long standing business model allowing for everyday low pricing. Any significant change in how employees are compensated might likely be a game-changer.

Overall, retail employees, probably Walmart included, all would like to earn higher salaries and wages, and also be provided better benefits. And who could blame them? It's almost impossible to raise a family on a retail salary while having also to pay so much out of pocket for health insurance.

But ironically, due largely in part to Walmart, retailers will have a very difficult time staying in business and making a profit, if retail employees are compensated more than they are at present. As a result, there will be some unhappiness. I do think retailers can do a much better job in creating an atmosphere where employees feel better about their jobs, and their employers.

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David Biernbaum, Senior Marketing and Business Development Consultant, David Biernbaum Associates LLC

Retailers are accustomed to cheap labor and consumers are accustomed to cheaper prices. As long as retailers deliver those prices, consumers, for the most part, will look the other way at employee compensation and treatment.

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Max Goldberg, President, Max Goldberg & Associates

Walmart gets picked on because they are the largest and most successful. Oddly these protesters stay away from Target, Costco, Kmart, dollar stores, and fast food, etc. Walmart is probably quite generous given that many of their employees would be considered unemployable to their competitors.

The employer/employee relationship across retail to seems to be just as good as ever. It just depends on the business model. Grocers like Wegmans, HyVee, Publix, have superb employee morale. They tend to hire younger, good looking, productive, hard working people with a great attitude and realize their business model requires paying a premium on wages. But Walmart simply needs warm bodies. If Walmart were to start raising wages, believe me they would begin to fire and lay off workers in mass and replace them with employees who are actually worth those wages. Raising the wages of Walmart employees would be the worse thing for them because the could never live up to the expectations of that wage and would soon be fired.

David Livingston, Principal, DJL Research

The relationship of employees and employers today is much like an established football rivalry. Both sides have an insatiable desire to win the glory within it and also capture any inherent "stuff."

Off-the-field social, political, fiscal and recruiting forces add or detract from that equation. Thus the rivalry continues on and on as it always engenders the hope by both sides that either victory will maintain itself or that it will eventually change its side.

Consumers are spectators in this game. They support whomever relates to their own deepest desires, which usually come ahead of team loyalty. That, to me, explains why Black Friday was such a sales success.

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Gene Hoffman, President/CEO, Corporate Strategies International

With the ongoing "race to the bottom' including not only prices but wages/benefits for most retailers, there will be strong differentiation for retailers with quality products and quality employees. The market will sort itself out, in time. Very few consumers are genuinely concerned about retail employee compensation and treatment. They care about the value they receive in what they buy, and how they are treated by the store.

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Warren Thayer, Editor & Managing Partner, Frozen & Refrigerated Buyer

The retailers I'm talking with have another angle on this. They're increasingly wondering whether the in-store engagement strategies they're working on can be executed well by people who make $8 per hour, and who'll therefore stay only a few months. It would be nice to return to the days of retail as a career, not a pitstop.

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Cathy Hotka, Principal, Cathy Hotka & Associates

I think there is real trouble brewing in the mass merchant/employee relationship. The consumers who care about it are typically folks like us -- who don't do any in-store shopping on holidays anyway.

In other words, there's a class issue brewing, and it will transcend the Occupy and Tea Party movements. Walmart can claim everything is fine all it wants. There is trouble ahead.

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Paula Rosenblum, Managing Partner, RSR Research

Walmart has a target on their back with unions. Thankfully, Walmart has remained non-union and continues to deliver low prices to consumers and provide jobs to those of all backgrounds willing to work. Visiting my local Sam's Club this weekend, all I saw were employees serving customers and happy to have jobs.

Yes, if unions break in to Walmart, all retailers will be attacked and consumers can expect less service and higher prices.

'REMader'

In general, employees at many of the stores competing for opening sales over the holiday employ people on hourly wages that are too low to support a family. With high unemployment it is easy to find that labor and to replace anyone who leaves. While many people dislike this policy, it will continue as long as there are long lines of people eager for low prices. As a result, the conflict between workers and retailers will continue.

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Camille P. Schuster, Ph.D., President, Global Collaborations, Inc.

For the large majority of consumers, they couldn't care less how the workers are compensated. It likely never crosses their minds. That is likely especially true of the the "Black Weekend" where fights, gun fire, pushing and shoving are now the norm over the lowest price.

While I largely agree with Cathy Hotka, it rings true only for retailers that have, support, and understand that model. Walmart's model is completely different.

For the disgruntled workers that found themselves protesting instead of working on the "Black Weekend," I simply suggest they peddle their wares elsewhere. If they think they are worth more, then take what they have got and sell it to a retailer or other employer that will pay more.

For those consumers that are concerned with the compensation and treatment of those selling them goods, I suggest taking their wallet where their values agree with the model of the retailer. While there is always much talk about this subject, whether it be Walmart or any other, the fact is that the talk and the wallet do separate things. Other retailers have found a model that can do both -- provide a respectable wage and benefit package, as well as, a value to the customer. It is possible for the consumer to shift their dollars. They don't.

The cold hard fact is that those that are hurt most by the Walmart model -- their own demographic -- support them the most with their dollars.

Words are spoken, yet the dollars speak louder. It is as simple as that.

Both workers and consumers can shift. It is their choice just as it is Walmart's choice to continue or modify their model. They won't because the consumers tell them by their actions that they like it just the way it is.

'Scanner'

Employee/employer relations are the same in retail as everywhere else today: the employer is in charge. The demonizing of unions over the last 20 years has taken its toll across the board. Combine that perception with a population saddled with debt, stagnant wages and fear of job loss, and you get what we've got: employer in charge.

Some, like Starbucks and Apple, have chosen the high road and take care of their associates. Others take the low road, depending on management philosophy or what the market will bear. But in either case, 'employer in charge' will not change until workers in any industry organize better and create a leadership strata that understands modern business. So, until that time, we can look forward to more of what happened this past weekend; employers doing what they please followed by some employees griping, but most just doing what they're asked to do.

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Lee Peterson, EVP Creative Services, WD Partners

This was a poor move on the part of the union. They could have been more supportive of their organizers, without calling for a strike on such an important holiday. There are better ways to draw attention to their union concerns without hurting potential members (if Walmart had a poor Black Friday, people could easily have lost jobs because of the union's tactics). It was also important to note that these tactics are not positive, but only serve to hurt the union and their employees' positions.

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Kai Clarke, President, Kowa Optimed, Inc.

WOW! I haven't seen any reports regarding the universal Walmart worker protest. Could it be that the United Food & Commercial Workers International Union couldn't amass any meaningful protest? The fact is that Walmart has many job applicants in most locations itching for the opportunity to work at Walmart. Could the United Food & Commercial Workers International Union be attempting to create a tempest in a teapot? Walmart hires a lot of minimum skill level employees and frankly these folks don't have a lot of alternatives. Walmart, like McDonald's, offers a career path for someone willing to work hard and exhibit responsibility.

What does the Union offer?

Ed Dennis, Sales, Dennis Enterprises

Getting a raise from $9 an hour to $12 an hour could turn out badly for the worker and great for the union. The union is in business to collect dues. However, the worker might start losing out on Food Stamps, Earned Income Credit, and Medicaid. We have a safety net in this country that basically guarantees every one about $20 a hour whether you are working full time or watching TV full time.

David Livingston, Principal, DJL Research

Nobody cared except the union, their few paid protestors and the idiotic MSM. Shoppers, not so much!

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Herb Sorensen, Ph.D., Scientific Advisor TNS Global Retail & Shopper, Adjunct Senior Fellow, Ehrenberg-Bass Institute

The union has lost ground and therefore broad-based consumer support. As to whether or not relations are good -- depends entirely on the company.

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Ryan Mathews, Founder, ceo, Black Monk Consulting

Shop till you drop and the employee will always lose out because in today's economic climate and the foreseeable future, the employer wins. The decline of union influence on terms of employment, wages and holidays is not going to take a U turn at this juncture, just because some consumers protest or feel it is unfair or disrespectful to family values and societal norms to work Thanksgiving night into early morning.

What will happen next year as it did this year is that these protests will keep the PR arm of leading retailers busy as the media chooses to cover people picketing the front entrance of a store.

The website is open 24/7, so are most call centers where even domestics can shift to overseas and give US employees the day off. The physical store is a 365 day proposition -- Christmas Eve/Day, New Years and Thanksgiving. The cold hard facts are that the deep majority of CEOs and shareholders alike couldn't care less what the policy is for operating hours -- rather what the earning per share will yield.

David Slavick, Director, Loyalty & Retention, FTD.com

For the most part, "retail sucks." And it has been that way for decades. In addition to low wages, most retail jobs are purposely part-time to avoid paying benefits. For these reasons a great many lower level retail positions are filled by people who aren't even worth the minimum wage. Retailers also provide very little training. Apparently most retailers have decided that it is not cost effective to spend the money to hire, train, adequately reward and thus retain better qualified staff. I hope Doug Stephens is right that things are going to improve, but I am not holding my breath.

'schindler'

Bargain pricing retail models require a relatively low wage workforce. As some here mention, there is a wide swath of labor who need the kinds of opportunities Walmart and other low wage employers offer. Large percentages of this workforce would not qualify to work in higher wage environments.

In general, the state of relations is dependent on the quality of floor supervision and store leadership and their ability to engender a positive work environment. Walmart and others of their ilk are advised to focus on leadership development to minimize the challenges that come from a low-wage workforce.

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Mike Osorio, Senior VP Organizational Change Management, DFS Group

I don't think many consumers care very much about employee compensation -- but that doesn't mean that paying better-than-average compensation won't attract more consumers. In fact, stores like Trader Joe's that pay better than average also have higher sales/square foot and are more profitable.

Mark Gardiner, Communications Strategist, revolutionaryoldidea.com

A "low wage" workforce is not necessarily a "low cost" workforce. Hiring the same workers and paying them more is not going to achieve anything.

Paying more to hire a better workforce could actually result in a less costly workforce, all things considered. Some retail locations are a victim of the quality of the workforce available to them. Also, I suspect that some employees would rather work for Target than Walmart, even at the same pay.

I have sometimes driven a few extra miles to dine at a chain restaurant location just because the wait staff was better there. If you operate where half the potential workers are high school dropouts, you are at a disadvantage to an operation located where the potential employees are generally better educated and have fewer body piercings.

'schindler'

No surprise that the numbers of protesters were exaggerated. One third of Walmart workers are part time. Bureau of labor statistics says average retail employees in 2010 made $7.25-$18.49. It may sound harsh, but it's about supply and demand. Low skilled labor makes less. Companies with low margins, like Walmart, pay on the lower end. This should not be a career choice. This should be a stepping stone.

Other retailers, with higher margins pay more. Skilled professionals, who invest in education make more. According to "Payscale" the average Retail Store Assistant Manager makes $42k. The average Retail Store Manager makes $25-65k, depending on how long they have been there. Brain surgeons make more for a reason. This is not a mystery. But it is something people do like to complain about.

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Janet Dorenkott, VP & Co-owner, Relational Solutions, Inc.

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