With Black Friday approaching, demonstrations reemerge at Walmart

(MoneyWatch) Demonstrations are starting up again at Walmart (WMT) stores across the country, ahead of the Black Friday shopping push. The protests, attended by Walmart workers, union members and supporters, are similar to those held last year. At issue, participants say, are low wages and high-priced benefits at the retail giant.

Charmaine Givens-Thomas, an associate at the Walmart in Evergreen Park, Illinois, just outside of Chicago, said concerns over benefits prompted her to demonstrate. "None of us can afford the health care at Walmart," she said. "We just had open enrollment and the deductible went up to $1,500." Many of her coworkers are forced to rely on Medicaid and food stamps to get by, she said.

"Walmart is the largest low-wage employer in our country," said Dan Schlademan, Director of Making Change at Walmart, a group affiliated with and funded by the United Food & Commercial Workers International Union. "Workers at Walmarts are standing up and saying -- we can't live on what you're providing to us. We can't put food on our table."

Walmart representatives say it's the union organizers and not Walmart associates that are behind the movement. "You will see a lot of folks that -- either they are people that are with one of our retail competitors that are out there protesting, or they're with a local union group," said Walmart spokesperson Kory Lundberg. "What you don't see is people that actually work for Walmart or people that are affiliated with Walmart in any way."

"Walmart always says that," said Schlademan. "Walmart workers are going on strike. Walmart workers are engaging in civil disobedience. Walmart workers are calling for this company to take a stand."

Lundberg, meanwhile, says Walmart workers are happy. Nearly two-thirds of associates, according to Lundberg, are signed up for the company health plan. "We have a very competitive offering both on compensation and on benefits," he said. "Our lowest associate-only (health) plan is only $18 per pay period."

As for the demonstrations, Schlademan and Given-Thomas say expect to see more like the one today in Chicago, and those earlier this week in Los Angeles and the Seattle area, as we approach Black Friday.

Givens-Thomas, who earns $11 an hour, said she's committed to the movement. "You can't take care of your basic needs on that. I run a household, so I need to pay my rent and my utilities."

She said she hopes the demonstrations send a message. "I just want the people in the United States to understand that -- a company, a country, anything -- is only as great as its smallest component."

Correction: An earlier version of the story mischaracterized Walmart's comments about the $1,500 annual deductible of one of its plans. That comment has been removed.