Wal-Mart labor protests: 15 cities, arrests in NYC

Updated at 7:26 p.m. ET

(MoneyWatch) A coalition of union, religious and civil groups on Thursday launched protests at Wal-Mart (WMT) stores in 15 U.S. cities, the largest such demonstrations since last fall, organizers said. Three protesters were arrested in New York City as they tried to deliver a petition to a member of Wal-Mart's board.

The New York Police Department said the three were booked on trespassing and disorderly conduct charges, the Associated Press reported.

The demonstrations were part of a larger set of protests, strikes and other labor actions launched in conjunction with unions seeking to organize low-paid workers. They come as many large retailers continue to curb compensation growth, as well as shift full-timer workers to part-time status to avoid having to pay health and retirement benefits.

According to Berlin Rosen, a public relations firm representing the protesters, three current and former Wal-Mart workers were arrested when trying to deliver a petition to company board member Christopher Williams, CEO of New York investment bank The Williams Capital Group. The petition calls for Wal-Mart to offer employees full-time jobs with a minimum annual salary of $25,000; reinstate workers fired after taking part in previous labor actions against the company; and to stop what the group says is retaliation against workers calling for better jobs.

Critics of the labor protests targeting Wal-Mart say people work at the company because they choose to and that they should find jobs that pay better if they want higher wages. Supporters of the protesters claim that Wal-Mart employees generally earn less than average retail workers and that many workers at the retail giant must seek various types of public assistance to survive. One of those arrested in New York, Wal-Mart employee Barbara Gertz, told CNBC Thursday afternoon that the company is so huge and influential that people who work in the retail industry don't find many employment alternatives.

"There are a lot of retail businesses that follow their business model," she said. "It's going to be the same."

Gertz, who said she works as an overnight stocker at a Wal-Mart store in Denver and is paid $10 an hour, said she was in jail for about three hours Thursday. She said employees who speak out about the company's labor practices are fired or face other forms of retaliation.

Since June, Wal-Mart has disciplined close to 80 workers, including firing 20, because of their participation in legally protected union- or labor-related actions, according to the National Employment Law Project, an advocacy group that focuses on low-wage workers.

At the same time, Wal-Mart's gross profit margins are dropping, according to stock analyst site Trefis. Higher pay for employees could undermine those margins even more.

When this article was first published, Wal-Mart had not yet responded to a series of questions emailed to the company by CBSNews.com. The company has called the protests "a show" and claims that the majority of people participating don't have any connection to Wal-Mart.

Wal-Mart shares fell a third of a percent Thursday to close at $72.67.

[Update: Wal-Mart spokesperson Brooke Buchanan responded, saying, "We have not terminated any associates for their participation and if they're active in Our Walmart group or any other labor group." Regarding the income of Wal-Mart employees, she said that in the U.S., full-time hourly employees made up about 60 percent of the 1.3 million total employees in this country and that their average hourly wage was $12.83. Including part-time employees, the average is about $12 an hour. Some basic algebra shows that part-time hourly workers make $10.76 per hour on average. If those part-time employees were brought to full-time, assuming that all wanted full-time positions, the average annual salary would be $22,370, or $2,630 less than the minimum annual salary the protesters demand.]

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    Erik Sherman is a widely published writer and editor who also does select ghosting and corporate work. The views expressed in this column belong to Sherman and do not represent the views of CBS Interactive. Follow him on Twitter at @ErikSherman or on Facebook.

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