PORTLAND is an anti-Walmart town.
The city is home to only one Walmart (significantly less than the national average of one Walmart for every 70,000 people), where 150 Portlanders turned out to protest on Black Friday, despite icy temperatures and constant rain.
"I'm thankful we live in a city where this many people turn out to an anti-Walmart protest the day after Thanksgiving," quipped Commissioner-elect Steve Novick, joining a crowd that waved signs and chanted outside the retailer's vast parking lot on SE 82nd and Holgate as part of a chain of reportedly 1,000 protests at stores—hitting 25 percent of Walmarts nationwide—on Friday, November 23.
While Novick, Commissioner Amanda Fritz, a hearty crew of neighbors, Occupy Portland protesters, and union members protested Walmart's low wages, treatment of female workers, and long holiday hours, no workers themselves turned out for Friday's protests in Oregon or Washington.
The Walmart Black Friday walkout and solidarity protesters were supposed to be a stab into the economic heart of Walmart. Instead, the retailer was able to spin the protest to its advantage nationwide.
While the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union spearheading the protest complained that Walmart was stealing Thanksgiving from its workers, that exact strategy is what led the retailer to record profits.
Before Portland's biggest protest even began, at 10:30 am on Black Friday, Walmart was already crowing about record sales. Big box retailers raked in 13 percent more sales this year over 2011, according to the Associated Press. Walmart bumped its Black Friday sales to start at 8 pm on Thanksgiving Day—two hours earlier than last year.
The protest organizers are still tabulating the number of Walmart workers who participated in the protests, estimating the count as "in the hundreds." But Walmart downplayed the role of actual workers in the protest, snagging TV slots on Black Friday for company spokespeople who said fewer than 50 workers participated in the walkout (and then took a minute to note that Walmart offers competitive benefits).
A small protest took place at Portland's Walmart on Thanksgiving night, when an Occupy-organized group lit up a sign outside saying "Walkout on Walmart." One protester was arrested for "creating a disturbance" in the store and, when the larger protest got underway Friday morning, four Portland police officers stood at Walmart's front door.
Inside, business proceeded as usual, with a steady stream of shoppers filling baskets with electronics and clothes beneath bleak fluorescent lights. Shopper Brandy Simmons took a smoke break outside the store after failing to find a particular 47-inch TV. Simmons said she wasn't aware of the walkout protest, but had heard about the worker pay issues.
"I kind of agree," she said. "They work really hard at Walmart and they don't get paid as much as they should."
Last year, Walmart was actively negotiating on 17 lots near Portland, clearly eyeing expansion within the city, and has started construction on a store near Delta Park. There's nothing city council can legally do to block the store's plans, Commissioner Fritz said at Friday's protest, regretfully.
"We need good jobs in town," she said, "jobs with benefits."