ELLSWORTH — About 25 demonstrators sang an adaptation of the song “John Brown’s Body” in unison six or seven times as they made small purchases at the local Walmart register on Friday morning.
“We have come to Ellsworth Walmart to support the workers here, we believe you should get paid a living wage and that is clear,” the activists sang as a police officer and several managers looked on.
The demonstrators explained later that they had to make the purchases, such as nail polish, cat food and pencils, in order to avoid getting kicked out of the store. No one was arrested as a result of the demonstration, according to Ellsworth police.
Shoppers for the most part seemed to ignore the demonstrators and continue shopping.
After the singing, the activists congregated across Myrick Street where they continued their protest while holding up signs with phrases such as “Wal-Mart’s greed is gross” and “Wal-Mart: Respect our community.”
Some drivers coming out of both Walmart and Home Depot showed their support by honking at the protesters.
Activists and union members in at least three locations in Maine joined thousands of others across the country in protest of what the picketers call the “poverty wages” that Wal-Mart Stores Inc. pays its sales associates. They say workers should be paid a minimum of $25,000 a year.
“The greed from these big corporations is hurting everybody,” said Loren Snow, a demonstrator who said he worked at a Walmart store for five months in 2009 before he was laid off. He said he was paid $7.50 an hour, or minimum wage.
While no arrests were reported in Maine, at least 20 protesters were charged at demonstrations elsewhere, according to cnnmoney.com. The online news site reported 10 people being arrested on misdemeanor charges Friday near a Walmart in Ontario, Calif., after they moved into an intersection and failed to disperse. Another 10 protesters were issued citations for blocking a roadway near a Walmart in Chicago.
At the Walmart in Auburn, seven people passed out about 230 fliers with information about workers’ wages to shoppers.
“My understanding is that they make between $17 billion and $23 billion in profits,” said picketer Joe Mailey of the company. “To hear that any of their workers have to seek out any kind of public assistance is just mind boggling to say the least.”
In a press release issued this week, activists said they were motivated by a presentation made at a conference in October by Wal-Mart Stores Inc.’s top executive, Bill Simmon, who said that at least 475,000 of the retailer’s full-time, hourly associates make at least $25,000 a year. Many have pointed out that that leaves 525,000 workers making less than that sum a year.
But Walmart countered that the average hourly wage for a full-time sales associate is $12.83, and the average wage for all associates, including part-timers, is $11.83, according to Wal-Mart spokesman Kory Lundberg.
“That wage compares very favorably with any of our competitors in the retail industry,” he said on Wednesday.
He added, “It’s not really about where you start, but about the opportunities you have once you get in.”
On its website, the company states: “About 75 percent of our store management teams started as hourly associates, and they earn between $50,000 and $170,000 a year.”
Activists also said this week that they were emboldened by a finding by the National Labor Relations Board that Wal-Mart fired and disciplined employees illegally for their involvement in last year’s Black Friday protest.
Wal-Mart has denied those accusations. Lundberg called the NLRB’s action a “procedural step.”
“We will continue to work with the NLRB and we look forward to doing so,” he said.
OUR Wal-Mart, an organization that advocates for the rights of Wal-Mart workers, set up a website before Friday’s protests where associates could log in and request Black Friday events at their stores. On Friday morning, Presque Isle, Waterville and Scarborough were marked as places where associates had requested those events.
Organizers from worker unions in Maine have been in regular contact with the national group, though it is not officially organizing the activities here. In Maine, the local unions scheduled events in Scarborough, Auburn, Augusta and Ellsworth.
A similar event was held outside the Ellsworth Walmart last year, which drew about 15 participants. Sarah Bigney, a mobilizer at Maine’s American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizers, said she thinks momentum for this cause will only grow and that more demonstrations may take place even before next year’s Black Friday.