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Large crowds protest Walmart labor practices in Hadley, Northampton

  • JOSH KUCKENS<br/>Supporters and members of "Our Walmart" gathered outside of Walmart in Hadley on Black Friday to protest the company's treatment of employees and restrictions on unionizing. The group is comprised of both current and former employees, and protests like these were held at Walmarts across the country.

    JOSH KUCKENS
    Supporters and members of "Our Walmart" gathered outside of Walmart in Hadley on Black Friday to protest the company's treatment of employees and restrictions on unionizing. The group is comprised of both current and former employees, and protests like these were held at Walmarts across the country. Purchase photo reprints »

  • JOSH KUCKENS<br/>Auvretia Edick of Chicopee, who is part of "Our Walmart," addresses the large crowd of supporters as they protest outside of Walmart in Hadley on Black Friday. The group is comprised of both current and former employees, and protests like these were held at Walmarts across the country against the company's treatment of employees and restrictions on unionizing.

    JOSH KUCKENS
    Auvretia Edick of Chicopee, who is part of "Our Walmart," addresses the large crowd of supporters as they protest outside of Walmart in Hadley on Black Friday. The group is comprised of both current and former employees, and protests like these were held at Walmarts across the country against the company's treatment of employees and restrictions on unionizing. Purchase photo reprints »

  • JOSH KUCKENS<br/>Supporters and members of "Our Walmart" gathered outside of Walmart in Hadley on Black Friday to protest the company's treatment of employees and restrictions on unionizing. The group is comprised of both current and former employees, and protests like these were held at Walmarts across the country.
  • JOSH KUCKENS<br/>Auvretia Edick of Chicopee, who is part of "Our Walmart," addresses the large crowd of supporters as they protest outside of Walmart in Hadley on Black Friday. The group is comprised of both current and former employees, and protests like these were held at Walmarts across the country against the company's treatment of employees and restrictions on unionizing.

The pair of local protests were aligned with 1,000 rallies staged by Our Wal-Mart, a labor group, to coincide with the busiest shopping day of the year.

Jon Weissman, coordinator for Western Massachusetts Jobs with Justice, said rallies were held outside all nine Wal-Mart locations in the region. The hope, he said, was to highlight what the group sees as poor labor conditions at the company, as well its efforts to prevent workers from unionizing.

The company said in a statement it challenges whether the group actually represents significant numbers of Wal-Mart workers.

“Wal-Mart is the biggest private employer in the country and the world. They set wages and retail prices,” Weissman said. “They’re a driver. If you want to change the economy, you have to be in the driver’s seat.”

In all, three or four Wal-Mart workers spoke out at the nine rallies in western Massachusetts, Weissman said. Organizers estimated that the Hadley rally drew 80 people while the Northampton event drew 50.

Auvertia Edick of Chicopee, a former Wal-Mart employee in New York state, told demonstrators that after working at the company for 12 years, her hourly wage was $11.70 before being laid off recently, according to Rob Okun, an Amherst resident who attended the protest.

Changewalmart.org, a website supported by the United Food and Commerical Workers union, reported that the average annual salary of a Wal-Mart sales associate is $15,000.

“It strikes me that at a time when so much focus in on buying, buying, buying, that we put some focus on the people who provide the services,” Okun said in a later interview. “Our whole economy would be better off if employees were paid better.”

Police and demonstrators described both events as peaceful, though the Hadley gathering witnessed one tense moment when protesters entered the store and staged a “mic check,” the Occupy Wall Street-inspired method of public speaking.

Protesters were soon asked to leave by several on-duty Hadley police officers hired by Wal-Mart as private security details for Black Friday. When those requests went unanswered, protesters were escorted from the store, prompting several verbal altercations, police and protesters said.

No arrests were made.

“Inside a couple and a cop got into it,” said Rene Theberge of Amherst, who attended the protest with his wife, Susan. “One cop was pointing his finger in someone’s face.”

Sgt. Damion Shanley described the rally as “somewhat peaceful, boisterous.” He said he was aware of no complaints of excessive force on the part of officers removing protesters.

Many protesters spoke of wanting to offer support to Wal-Mart employees.

“We feel that we as a community ought to support people who are working for very low wages and with poor benefits,” said Martha Spieglman, who helped organize the protest as a local “captain” for Jobs with Justice. Spieglman, an Amherst resident, attended the protest with her husband, Irwin.

“I think they could pay their workers a little more,” said Susan Theberge.

Nationally, much of the focus was upon how many Wal-Mart employees participated in the protests.

Wal-Mart said roughly 50 employees participated in the events Thursday and a “few dozen” employees Friday. Company spokesman Dan Fogleman said that the number of associates who missed their shifts during the two days of events is 60 percent lower than last year.

“It was proven last night — and again today — that the Our Wal-Mart group doesn’t speak for the 1.3 million Wal-Mart associates,” the company said in a statement.

Our Wal-Mart, made up of current and former Wal-Mart employees, was formed in 2010 to press the company for better working conditions.

In Paramount, Calif., authorities arrested a small group of protesters Friday outside a Wal-Mart. Elizabeth Brennan of Warehouse Workers United said nine people, including three employees, were arrested shortly after noon for blocking the street outside the store in Paramount. At one point, more than 1,000 people blocked traffic outside the store, Sheriff’s Capt. Mike Parker told KNBC-TV.

Wal-Mart, based in Bentonville, Ark., operates 10,400 stores in 27 countries.

Material from the Associated Press was used in this story.

By what standards are crowds of 50 at 80 (as estimated by protest organizers) to be considered "large?" Even for the Valley, that strikes me as fair-to-middlin' in size, at best. About the only outsized thing about these protests was the prominent placement provided in the Gazette for their coverage.

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