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Wal-Mart’s labor backlash on Black Friday

It might be one of the largest labor protests in decades. Thousands of Wal-Mart employees may strike on Black Friday, one of the most important shopping weekends of the year. Senior management in a company employing 1.3 million people in the United States and over 2 million worldwide is downplaying the potential financial and public relations disaster. According to management, isolated incidences and a small minority of unhappy employees are fueling rumors of Black Friday problems.

Wal-Mart ranks second in the Fortune 500 list. In 2011, domestic profits were $15.7 billion. The average hourly wage for a Wal-Mart associate is $8.83. Perceived mistreatment of associates has long made headlines. Union bashing, gender discrimination, poor working conditions, modest health care coverage, and forcing associates to work on Thanksgiving Day pulling many away from families, among other things, have tarnished its reputation.

Frustrations and a sense of powerlessness with the company have prompted some associates to engage in criminal and destructive behavior. This includes associates breaking iPads and warning consumers on YouTube, “This is why you don’t buy an iPad from Walmart.”

Threats of national strikes, walkouts, or calling-in-sick on or around Black Friday re-affirms, fairly or not a negative reputation many have about the Fortune 500 Company. Consumers that shop at Wal-Mart though aware of the allegations have done little to support the employees who see themselves as mistreated.

Wal-Mart needs to conduct a careful and honest evaluation of its ethical culture. Whatever promises senior management have made to address employee grievances are either insincere or there is managerial incompetence preventing genuine reform. A healthy ethical culture recognizes people as an organization’s greatest asset and treats them with respect.

Perhaps Mike Duke, President and CEO of Wal-Mart, should consider going undercover as a rank and file employee. He can be on the reality show airing on CBS, “Undercover Boss.” Or maybe the top brass just doesn’t care. __________________________________

Paul Jesep is an attorney, policy analyst, and author of Lost Sense of Self & the Ethics Crisis: Learn to Live and Work Ethically.