a citizen’s journal by Thomas Nephew

“Black Friday” Wal-Mart action in Oak Ridge, Tennessee

Posted by Thomas Nephew on November 23rd, 2012

I’m in my hometown, Oak Ridge, Tennessee for the Thanksgiving weekend, and today I had the privilege of joining a  Wal-Mart Black Friday event there.  Unlike others you may have read or seen video about, this one wasn’t a big demonstration outside a Wal-Mart, or a “mic check” inside one.  Instead, it was “just” two of us — but with a large, local interfaith community behind us.

My new friend Lance McCold and myself were put in touch by Rev. Jim Sessions of the Interfaith Worker Justice of East Tennessee, a “network of religious leaders and  allies”  united in concern for economic justice.  We met outside Oak Ridge Wal-Mart Supercenter #1194 in blustery late fall weather, then went inside to look for management to whom to hand a letter signed by over 40 local ministers and persons of faith.

Not being sure where to go, we asked a cashier, who called over someone I imagine was floor supervisor.  I had brought my video camera, hoping to film what I could.  The floor supervisor called a manager — and on hanging up, said “no cameras.”

Lance McCold, Knoxville participant in the
Wal-Mart Black Friday
events as a supporter of
Interfaith Worker Justice of East Tennessee

A few minutes later, we were met by a nice enough, if harried young woman, N., who heard Lance and then me explain that we were there to deliver a letter from the local interfaith community, in solidarity with Wal-Mart workers and actions across the United States seeking better treatment and better pay.

N. scanned the letter quickly, tracing every word with her finger to be sure of missing nothing.  She then disappeared for several minutes behind an unmarked door near Customer Service — leaving us to joke nervously that if a SWAT team appeared, we’d each blame the other guy.  But when she reappeared, her main concern was just whether there was anyone else outside, she’d heard something about cameras.  We said there were just the two of us; I said I had a camera along but had put it away on request.

The excellent letter, drafted by Rev. Jim Sessions, is addressed to Mike Duke of the Wal-Mart home office in Bentonville, Arkansas.  It begins,

Dear Mr. Duke,

We are writing you today to let you know that on this Black Friday, we join thousands of people of faith who are gathered at different Walmart stores across the country in support of Walmart associates and Walmart-contracted warehouse workers demanding respect, better wages and safer working conditions.

As we stand outside of East Tennessee area stores on the biggest shopping day of the year, we see an endless stream of customers and thousands of items flying off the shelves. By the end of the day, Walmart will make millions in sales and profits. The hardworking associates and warehouse workers, however, will go home with barely enough to make ends meet.

and continues:

 As people of faith, we call for a Jubilee at Walmart as the company celebrates its 50th anniversary this year. Jubilee is the biblical covenant requiring the cancellation of debts, freeing of slaves and redistribution of resources every 50 years to limit inequality. […] 

We call on Walmart to share its corporate wealth with workers by providing what is due to store associates and to those contracted to provide and move Walmart goods: a living wage, benefits and a safe workplace.

Thank you.

As Mr. McCold — one of the signatories — said outside afterwards,

…workers are the wealth creators of this country, and they need to be treated with respect and dignity and be able to support their families on the wages they make.  […] We’re trying …to express our desire for the kind of just community that Jesus would have asked for.

Then we said goodbye — Lance was off to deliver the letter to two more Wal-Mart stores (Turkey Creek and Walker Springs).

It was a real pleasure to meet Mr. McCold, and to contribute in a small way to nationwide efforts to call Wal-Mart to account.  One can only hope that messages reminding Wal-Mart managers in Bentonville of their own faith and their own higher aspirations could be an important part of those efforts.

UPDATE, 11/23: The letter was also delivered by other IWJET members to Knoxville area Wal-Marts at:  Clinton Highway, East Towne, Alcoa, Chapman Highway, Maryville.

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