Utah shoppers on Black Friday had to decide whether to snap up bargains at Walmart or support protesters demanding better pay and benefits for the big-box store's workers.
Judging from the full parking lot at the Walmart store in Salt Lake City, there was little sympathy for the 30 protesters representing a variety of labor groups. None of the protesters were Walmart employees.
Protester Kellie Wilson said about half of the tenants in a 50-unit Price mobile home park work at Walmart. "They are very poor, yet they work so hard. They cannot get full-time hours, and many must rely on food stamps and Medicaid. It's unjust."
One worker gathering up carts said he was uncomfortable when questioned by a reporter about the protest outside the store.
"I want to be polite, ma'am," he said. "But I've learned not to answer any questions."
But OUR Walmart, a nonprofit group backed by the United Food & Commercial Workers Union, which is spearheading the nationwide protests, has charged that Walmart is intimidating workers.
Walmart executives called the protests scattered and insignificant to their bottom line. At the same time, the giant retailer denied media access to any of its 4,500 stores and clubs during this shopping holiday weekend.
On Friday, the company said in a statement that its stores rang up almost 10 million transactions from the time they opened for Black Friday shoppers, between 8 p.m. Thursday and midnight or about 5,000 items per second.
"The number of associates that have missed their scheduled shift today is more than 60 percent less than Black Friday last year," said David Tovar, Walmart vice president of corporate communications. "It was proven last night and again today that the OUR Walmart group doesn't speak for the 1.3 million Walmart associates. We had our best Black Friday ever, and OUR Walmart was unable to recruit more than a small number of associates to participate in these made-for-TV events. Press reports are now exposing what we have said all along the large majority of protesters aren't even Walmart workers."
MSNBC reported that workers walked out of stores in at least seven states, and supporters held protests in at least two others.
Other news reports had workers striking or protests in Los Angeles; Dallas; Kenosha, Wis.; San Leandro, Calif.; Clovis, N.M.; Orlando, Fla.; Baton Rouge, La.; Quincy, Mass.; and Landover, Md.
In Salt Lake City, some 20 shoppers politely declined to answer questions on their opinions on the protest. All said they know nothing about issues involving Walmart workers.
The 21st shopper questioned, Scott Leonard, of Cottonwood Heights, said government overregulation and the Affordable Care Act are harming the ability of corporations and businesses to turn a profit. He said he sympathizes with Walmart workers' apparent low pay, but added that at least their jobs "are giving them work experience it's giving them a start."
In Utah, Walmart employs more than 16,000 workers, making the corporation the state's fourth largest boss, tying with Brigham Young University and behind only Intermountain Healthcare, University of Utah, including its hospital, and state government.
In 2006, Walmart came under criticism for a large number of its workers taking Medicaid, forcing Utah taxpayers to foot the health insurance bill. Walmart topped the state's Medicaid roster, according to an analysis by The Salt Lake Tribune of Weber, Davis, Salt Lake and Utah counties.
Walmart increased the number of health care plans the following year, but the expanded coverage did little to silence critics, who said the benefit choices were still too expensive for many employees.
USA Today contributed to this story.
Stores • 44 in Utah; 10,400 retail outlets under 69 banners in 27 countries
Employees • 16,000 in Utah; 1.3 million U.S.; 2.2 million worldwide
Utah distribution centers • Hurricane, Corinne and Grantsville
Sales • $444 billion worldwide
Walmart among Utah's largest bosses
20,000 plus employees •Intermountain Healthcare; University of Utah; state government
15,000 to 19,999 • Walmart stores, clubs, warehouse; Brigham Young University
10,000 to 14,999 • Hill Air Force Base (federal government)
7,000 to 9,999 • Granite District; Davis District; Utah State University; Salt Lake County
5,000 to 6,999 • Smith's; Alpine District: Jordan District; U.S. Treasury; U.S. Postal Service
Source: Utah Department of Workforce Services