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Wal-Mart Black Friday walkouts: What’s at stake

FORTUNE — Thousands of Wal-Mart employees won’t be pushing away from the Thanksgiving meal today to visit with family, watch football, or even clean the dishes. Instead, they’ll be heading to work to welcome bargain-hunting shoppers.

But some of the retail giant’s employees are opting out this year. One of those is Yesenia Yaber, a cashier at a Chicago Walmart (WMT) store, who says she really needs her job to support her five young children, says she’s told her bosses that she can’t work on Thanksgiving.

For the past two years, Yaber, who has protested working conditions as part of the union-backed group OUR Walmart, has worked in the early morning for the store’s Black Friday sales, the kickoff of the holiday shopping season. This year, she says she was assigned to a shift to prepare for the store’s 8 p.m. Thanksgiving Day opening. For her, it’s not only about being with her children for the holiday meal, it’s also a practical matter.

“I can’t work overnight,” she says. “My mom babysits the kids. Two of my kids are special needs. She can’t stay up all night.”

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For Wal-Mart, it’s also a matter OF practicality, though. The door-buster sale is a commercial juggernaut. Last year, stores racked up $52.4 billion in sales over the four-day Thanksgiving shopping weekend, up 16% over the previous year. Nabbing that heavily discounted flat screen TV or tablet isn’t just about jostling with fellow budget-minded shoppers; it is a badge of bargain-hunting prowess.

Earlier this month, Wal-Mart and its competitors, including Target (TGT) and Sears (SHLD), announced that bargain specials would start Thursday evening instead of the pre-dawn hours of Friday.

Walmart stores are typically open on Thanksgiving Day, but what was once an optional way for workers to make some holiday overtime cash has now become a source of confrontation. This year, customers will not just be coming in for miscellaneous purchases but are expected to be arriving in droves for serious shopping. To cope with the expected surge of eager shoppers, stores have to be staffed up with a full cadre of employees.

As commerce nibbles away at the one holiday that cuts across religious, income, ethnic, and other American divides, Wal-Mart workers are becoming bolder about saying no, even in this uncertain economy.

Workers and their backers, who include those who are friendly to unions, have been protesting against Wal-Mart’s practices, with walkouts scattered across some of the 4,000 stores across the country. The Bentonville, Arkansas-based retailing behemoth has staunchly resisted efforts to unionize its 1.4 million workers.

Wal-Mart, which did not respond to a request for comment, initially brushed off the demonstrations by OUR Walmart, which stands for Organization United for Respect at Walmart. The company has said that it retains a large percentage of employees and pays $12.54 an hour, a higher wage than the retail industry average.

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A Wal-Mart spokesman, David Tovar, has held that the walkouts have been orchestrated by unions. The United Food and Commercial Workers Union, whose affiliate is called Making Change At Walmart, has been active in organizing picketing against the country’s largest retailer.

But Wal-Mart startled friends and foes by lodging a complaint on Nov. 15 with the National Labor Relations Board, seeking to bar demonstrations on grounds that federal labor law requires a formal vote to unionize after 30 days of such public protests.

Workers like Yaber say they are focused on bread-and-butter issues, not unionizing. She makes under $10 per hour and said she would like to have the minimum hourly wage raised to $12, and see more full-time work schedules as well as less expensive health care insurance.

That level of pay would raise 700,000 American workers out of poverty, according to a report issued this week from Demos, a New York-based research group. It also estimated that the increase would create an additional 100,000 jobs, at a cost to customers of $.15 per shopping trip.

Aside from worker concerns, Wal-Mart’s no-nonsense reputation has been buffeted in recent months by allegations of bribery to set up stores in foreign countries.

“When you see that they go to another country and spend so much money to open one store, why can’t they spend more on workers here,” asked Dan Hindman, who has worked for a Los Angeles-area Walmart store since 2009.

A sales associate in electronics, 28-year-old Hindman has participated in OUR Walmart protests in his off time. He plans, for the first time, to walk out during his scheduled shift Friday evening to protest in front of the store.

Hindman, who says he makes $9.80 an hour and works a varied schedule, says he is speaking out because “How they treat us isn’t fair.” Next year, he says that his insurance premiums, about $106 every two weeks, will increase by more than one-third. At the same time, Wal-Mart is cutting back its contributions.

“I can’t spend Christmas with my four-year-old son. Now it’s Thanksgiving. I thought when I was hired that there was a future with Wal-Mart,” he says. “The community needs to know what is going on. Wal-Mart is part of the community.”

Even so, Hindman says his hours for next week already have been cut back significantly, which he believes is retaliation for speaking out. There was no way of ascertaining whether the reason, but Tovar, speaking to CBS Evening News Wednesday, said that if employees — called associates by Wal-Mart — don’t show up, “depending on the circumstances, there could be consequences.”

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OUR Walmart filed its own complaint with the labor board this week, arguing that Tovar’s comment amounted to an illegal threat directed at discouraging its workers from protesting.

Protests or no, Wal-Mart may have sealed the deal with its customers when it announced earlier this month that it “guarantees” the top three wish list items for those who are in a Walmart store and in line during a one-hour window on Thanksgiving Day.