Chicago - Protesters demanding higher wages and better healthcare for Walmart hourly workers converged on the retailer's stores across the United States, though there was no evidence they disrupted operations for the start of the crucial holiday shopping season.
OUR Walmart, an organisation backed by the United Food & Commercial Workers (UFCW) union, said "hundreds and hundreds of workers" walked off the job on "Black Friday", the unofficial start of the holiday shopping season which accounts for up to half the annual profit of some retailers.
At a Walmart on Chicago's South side, just one employee from the store's nearly 500 staff took part in the demonstration, according to Wal-Mart Stores, the world's largest retailer.
Outside the store, four busloads of protesters chanted in a demonstration that started almost an hour later than planned. The demonstration was peaceful, according to police and store security.
OUR Walmart said it counted 1 000 protests in 46 US states, including strikes in 100 cities - figures that Walmart said were "grossly exaggerated".
Many of the demonstrators were not Walmart workers, but were supporters such as Candice Justice, a retired teacher who stood with dozens of others in Chicago on Friday morning.
"We estimate that less than 50 associates participated in the protest nationwide. In fact, this year, roughly the same number of associates missed their scheduled shift as last year," Walmart US Chief Executive Bill Simon said in a statement.
The team organising the protests disagreed.
"Right now there are hundreds and hundreds currently on strike," Dan Schlademan, director of Making Change at Walmart, a campaign anchored by the UFCW, said on Friday afternoon. He said he could not provide a specific number of striking workers.
'Sam Walton was a good man'
Protests were planned across the country in places including Miami, Washington, DC, Wisconsin and California.
Walmart said it was aware of a few dozen protests on Friday, and said the number of workers that missed scheduled shifts was "more than 60% less than Black Friday last year".
The lone Chicago worker who protested, Tyrone Robinson, said he earns $8.95 an hour working in the produce department, and that his shifts have been cut back to less than 40 hours per week.
Rosetta Brown, who has been with the company for 15 years and works at the Sam's Club in Cicero, Illinois, joined the protest and lamented how employees are treated now compared with the era of company founder Sam Walton.
"Sam Walton was a good man ... Walmart passed away with him," she said. Walton opened the first Walmart store in 1962 and died in 1992.
About 300 people protested outside the Walmart in Paramount, California, on Friday. It was not immediately clear how many of those were Walmart workers who had skipped their shifts.
One shopper leaving the store with his girlfriend said that the protest might deter him from shopping at Walmart again.
"We need to put ourselves in their shoes. I probably won't shop here; I don't think they should take advantage of workers," said Joe Tegue, a 30-year-old contractor.
For its part, Walmart said it recorded its best Black Friday ever, with more shoppers than last year and nearly 10 million register transactions between 20:00 on Thursday and 24:00 on Friday. Among other items, it sold more than 1.8 million towels, 1.3 million TVs and some 250 000 bicycles.
Wal-Mart filed an unfair labour practice charge against the UFCW with the National Labor Relations Board last week in a bid to thwart the protests. Days later, OUR Walmart filed its own charge with the NLRB, saying the retailer was illegally attempting to deter workers from participating in strikes.
More allegations of violations are expected to be filed with the NLRB in the coming days, Schlademan said.
The NLRB regional office completed its investigation on Wednesday and submitted a report for further legal analysis, NLRB Director of Public Affairs Nancy Cleeland said on Friday.
"We don't expect to have any announcements or decision today or during the weekend," she said.
For the US Thanksgiving holiday shopping weekend, Walmart opened some stores as early as 20:00 on Thursday, which drew early demonstrators in some places, including Texas.
Josue Mata, a 28-year-old employee of a south Dallas store, said he earns $8.70 an hour working full-time as an overnight maintenance man. He said he raises four children, pays child support and lives with his parents.
He was scheduled to work on Thanksgiving night, but decided to join the protest instead. He said he is scheduled to work on Friday but does not know if he will still have a job.
"I worry about it, but it's a sacrifice we need to do to make a change," Mata said.
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