Walmart protests draw crowds but shoppers undeterred
* Union-backed group calls for walkouts in 100 cities
* Company: Processed nearly 10 mln sales during Thurs rush
* Workers risk jobs to demand better wages
By Jessica Wohl
CHICAGO, Nov 23 (Reuters) - Protesters demanding higher wages and better healthcare for hourly workers thronged to Walmart stores across the country, though there was no evidence they disrupted operations for the start of the crucial holiday shopping season.
OUR Walmart, an organization backed by the United Food & Commercial Workers (UFCW) union, said it expected employees in 100 cities to walk off the job on "Black Friday," the unofficial start of the holiday shopping season that accounts for up to one-half of retailers' profits.
At a Walmart on Chicago's South Side, just one employee from the store's nearly 500 staff took part in the demonstration, according to Wal-Mart Stores Inc,, the world's largest retailer.
Outside the store, four busloads of protesters chanted in a demonstration that started almost an hour later than planned. The demonstration was peaceful, according to police and store security.
"We estimate that less than 50 associates participated in the protest nationwide. In fact, this year, roughly the same number of associates missed their scheduled shift as last year," Walmart U.S. Chief Executive Bill Simon said in a statement.
The one Chicago worker who protested, Tyrone Robinson, said he makes $8.95 an hour working in the produce department, and that his shifts have been cut back to less than 40 hours per week.
Rosetta Brown, who has been with the company for 15 years and works at the Sam's Club in Cicero, Illinois, joined the protest and lamented how employees are treated now versus in the days of company founder Sam Walton.
"Sam Walton was a good man ... Walmart passed away with him," she said. Walton opened the first Walmart store in 1962 and died in 1992.
OUR Walmart said protests also took place Thursday night in Miami, cities in Wisconsin and northern California, and in Washington, D.C. in addition to Chicago on Friday morning. More stores in Midwestern and Southern states were expected to see protests later Friday.
For its part, Walmart said it recorded its best Black Friday ever, with more shoppers than last year and nearly 10 million register transactions between 8 p.m. Thursday and 12 a.m. Friday morning. Among other items, it sold more than 1.8 million towels, 1.3 million TVs and some 250,000 bicycles.
Wal-Mart filed an unfair labor practice charge against the UFCW with the National Labor Relations Board last week in a bid to thwart the protests. Days later, OUR Walmart filed its own charge with the NLRB, saying Wal-Mart was illegally attempting to deter workers from participating in strikes.
The NLRB regional office completed its investigation on Wednesday and submitted a report for further legal analysis, NLRB Director of Public Affairs Nancy Cleeland said on Friday.
"We don't expect to have any announcements or decision today or during the weekend," Cleeland said.
Walmart opened some stores as early as 8 p.m. Thursday, which drew early demonstrators in places, including Texas.
Josue Mata, a 28-year-old employee of a south Dallas store, said he earns $8.70 an hour working full time as an overnight maintenance man. He raises four kids, pays child support and lives with his parents.
He was scheduled to work Thanksgiving night, but decided to join the protest instead. He said he is scheduled to work on Friday but doesn't know if he'll have a job.
"I worry about it, but it's a sacrifice we need to do to make a change," Mata said.
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