Wal-Mart protesters demonstrate nationwide for $15-an-hour pay

Wal-Mart workers and supporters protest around the country on Black Friday for better pay

Around 200 Wal-Mart workers and their supporters marched outside a Long Beach store Friday in support of $15-an-hour pay, part of a nationwide day of demonstrations to push for better wages and working conditions at the retailer.

Organizers said rallies and marches were expected at 1,600 Wal-Mart locations on Friday in what they said would be the largest protests ever against the nation's biggest retailer. Although demonstrations were mounted at many Wal-Mart stores in major cities, it was not known if all 1,600 stores were involved.

Backing the demonstrations is Our Wal-Mart, the union-supported group of employees that has been pushing for a wage of $15 an hour and more full-time positions. A protest on Nov. 7 at a Wal-Mart in Pico Rivera ended with the arrest of 23 people on charges of unlawful assembly and failure to disperse.

Protesters near the Wal-Mart in Long Beach chanted, "We can't take it no more!" as shoppers taking advantage of Black Friday discounts streamed in and out of the store. Many demonstrating also carried signs that read, "Stop silencing workers who speak out."

Rhonda Gooden, 54, has worked as a cashier for four years at the Wal-Mart on Crenshaw Boulevard in Los Angeles. She said she makes $10.80 an hour and her work schedule can fluctuate wildly from 12 hours one week to 30 the next.

"I cannot pay my bills on that, I have to borrow money from my mother to pay rent," she said. "Sometimes I just have to cry."

Wal-Mart spokeswoman Brooke Buchanan said many of the protesters participating in Friday's demonstrations were being paid by unions to show up.

"We have seen this story before about the protesters and unions threatening to protest in a large amount of stores," she said. "What it turns out to be is a handful of stores with a handful of associates."

Some shoppers said they sympathized with the workers but counted on the cheap goods at Wal-Mart to stay within their budgets.

Nicole Bredeson of Long Beach was leaving Wal-Mart with a toy castle for her daughter that she got half off for $30. The graduate student said she makes only $16,000 a year teaching.

"It's not right. The Waltons can afford to pay them better. But it's not going to keep me from shopping here," she said, referring to the chain's founding family. "This is the only way I can afford Christmas for my kids."

If large demonstrations materialize, they could be a damper on the shopping bonanza that is Black Friday. The day after Thanksgiving traditionally kicks off the holiday season, when retailers can make 40% of their annual sales.

The fight for a living wage and higher pay has gained steam this year as rallies, sit-ins and strikes raise awareness of the issue.

California Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez (D-San Diego) announced this week plans to propose legislation that will require companies in the state to double the normal pay of employees who work during Thanksgiving and Christmas.

"It's imperative that employees who are losing out on their ... holidays to boost their boss's profits are paid fairly for that sacrifice," Gonzalez said in a statement.

Earlier this year, Seattle leaders voted to raise the city's minimum wage to $15 an hour, the highest minimum of any metropolis in the nation. The Los Angeles Unified School District signed a contract in July to raise its minimum wage to $15 an hour by 2016, which will boost the earnings of its lowest-paid employees, including custodians and cafeteria workers.

Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti is pushing for a $13.25 minimum wage for all workers in L.A. by 2017.

Times staff writer Shan Li contributed to this report.

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