Protesters picket Wal-Mart stores

Wal-Mart workers and supporters marched in protest at a number of stores nationwide Thursday and Friday, including a store in Baker, blasting the wages, benefits and treatment of employees of the world’s largest retailer.

The efforts seemed to do little to keep shoppers away, though — Wal-Mart said it was its best Black Friday on record.

A lone Wal-Mart employee and more than a dozen members of the Baton Rouge and New Orleans chapters of the Occupy movement staged a protest outside the retailer’s Baker store on Plank Road.

The 45-minute protest, which started at 6 a.m. just outside the front door, was part of the national Making Change at Walmart campaign against the retail giant. The group claims the Bentonville, Ark., company underpays employees, understaffs stores and retaliates against workers who speak out.

A union-backed group called OUR Walmart has said that it was holding an estimated 1,000 protests in 46 states. The exact number is unclear. Wal-Mart Stores Inc. has denied that estimate, saying the figure is grossly exaggerated and that the protests involved few of its own employees.

Janet Sparks, a customer service manager at the Baker store, was the only local Wal-Mart employee to take part in the Baker protest, which included signs and chants including, “They say rollback, we say fight back” and “Hey hey, ho ho, retaliation has got to go.”

Sparks said she has worked at the Baker Wal-Mart for three years and led a similar protest this spring. She said other employees expressed interest in joining the protest but backed out. She said that while her protest is protected speech, she wasn’t sure whether her decision to picket her employer would get her laid off or her hours cut.

Sparks said she was protesting to let employees, customers and investors know that Wal-Mart Stores Inc. can be a better corporate citizen and employer if it would provide workers with better pay and benefits and staff its stores better.

Sparks, who makes about $12 an hour, said she enjoys her job, but thinks workplace policies Wal-Mart began enacting in 2006 have hurt employees at the expense of shareholders.

“I truly believe the company can afford to pay us better,” she said.

The national campaign was timed to coincide with Black Friday, but Sparks said the issues she was protesting are ongoing.

The Baker parking lot was mostly empty early Friday morning. Wal-Mart’s door-buster sales were held Thursday at 8 p.m. and 10 p.m. and Friday at 5 a.m., an hour before the protest started.

Wal-Mart estimated that fewer than 50 associates participated in Thursday and Friday’s protests nationwide. Company spokesman Dan Fogleman said the number of associates who missed their shifts during the two days of events is 60 percent lower than last year.

“It was proven last night — and again today — that the OUR Walmart group doesn’t speak for the 1.3 million Wal-Mart associates,” the company said in a statement.

The union group estimated that “hundreds” of employees participated nationwide.

In Paramount, Calif., authorities arrested a small group of protesters Friday outside a Wal-Mart. Elizabeth Brennan, of Warehouse Workers United, said nine people, including three Wal-Mart employees, were arrested shortly after noon for blocking the street outside the store in Paramount. At one point, however, more than 1,000 people blocked traffic outside the store, Sheriff’s Capt. Mike Parker said.

In Lakewood, Colo., shoppers hesitated as they passed dozens of protesters outside a Wal-Mart but entered without incident.

Some protesters held signs playing off of the retailing giant’s corporate slogan, “Live better,” accusing the company of corporate greed and underpaying its workers.

A number of demonstrations and walk-outs occurred last week at stores but were scheduled to culminate on one of the year’s busiest shopping days.

The size and impact of the protests varied greatly by site. OUR Walmart, made up of current and former Wal-Mart employees, was formed in 2010 to press the company for better working conditions. Wal-Mart has criticized the group for relying largely on other unions and non-employees to make up the ranks protesting outside its stores.

The retailer also filed an unfair labor practice charge with the National Labor Relations Board last week against the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union. The company said that the demonstrations organized by OUR Walmart threatened to disrupt its business and intimidate customers and associates.

Advocate business writer Chad Calder and Associated Press writer Sarah Skidmore contributed to this report.