Just one day remains before the annual shopping frenzy known as Black Friday. U.S. retailers have been preparing for months, but for Wal-Mart Stores Inc. there will be an unexpected twist.
A group of Wal-Mart employees is planning protests and walkouts at hundreds of stores on Friday. The demonstrators are objecting to what they describe as retaliation against employees who have agitated for better wages, regular hours and affordable health care.
It's unclear whether the protests are a harbinger of a broader confrontation between management and workers at the retail giant or simply a short-lived source of friction involving a small number of employees.
But the effort has already led to some unusual legal maneuvering, which suggests Wal-Mart is taking the demonstrations seriously – perhaps because they target its busiest shopping day of the year.
The group behind the protests is a non-profit outfit called OUR Walmart, or Organization United for Respect at Walmart. It was created with the backing of the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union, which represents grocery and retail workers in the U.S. and Canada.
Last month, OUR Walmart led an initiative where small numbers of employees briefly walked off the job in stores in California and Texas in what supporters said were the first strikes in Wal-Mart's history.
Wal-Mart considers the effort a backdoor tactic to unionize its 1.3 million U.S. employees. The company is notoriously unfriendly to anything that resembles organized labour and has warded off previous attempts to unionize its workers in the U.S. and Canada.
In an interview with CBS News earlier this week, David Tovar, a company spokesman, said the protests were "another union publicity stunt." What's more, he said, if employees are "scheduled to work on Black Friday, we expect them to show up and do their job. And if they don't, depending on the circumstances, there could be consequences."
On Monday, Wal-Mart filed a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board – the first time it has done so in a decade. It asked the board to prevent the protests, which it claims are orchestrated by the retail workers' union and violate the law relating to unionization drives. OUR Walmart says it is an independent group that no longer receives financial support from the union and isn't seeking to unionize workers. The federal board is examining Wal-Mart's complaint, but will not make a decision before Friday.
William Fletcher, 23, has worked at a Wal-Mart store in Duarte, Calif., for four years and is active in OUR Walmart. On Friday, he expects upward of a dozen employees to walk off the job and join a protest line outside his store. For every employee "who speaks out, there are another 10 or 15 inside who are too afraid to," he said.
"We are asking our communities to come and join us," he added. "We're hoping that Wal-Mart will see that it's not just us – that the country is asking for them to change."
Wal-Mart asserts that customers won't notice anything different on Friday. "We do not expect these actions by a very small minority of our associates … to have any impact on our stores," a spokesperson for the company wrote in an e-mail. "This is the Super Bowl for retailers and we're ready."
Some experts say the example of Wal-Mart staff going public with their criticism of the company may be more important than their actual demands.
"If you can establish the precedent that [employees] can speak out without being fired or having their hours reduced ... that is a huge, tremendous breakthrough," said Nelson Lichtenstein, a labour historian at the University of California who wrote a book about Wal-Mart. These are "people who actually work there, who want to go back to work, who expect to go back to work. That is remarkable."