(MENAFN - AFP) Unhappy Walmart employees are protesting across the US Friday, seeking to make their demands for better pay and benefits more visible to the Americans flocking to the Black Friday shopping frenzy.
For the first time, the discontented employees at the world's largest retailer sought to be on display amid Black Friday's deeply discounted and doorbuster special sales.
Strikes that began Thursday, after Walmart pushed up its Black Friday sales to the evening of the Thanksgiving Day holiday, were expected to spread to the retailer's outlets in more than 100 cities throughout the day, said a union backing the workers.
The strikes are "part of the continued wave of 1,000 protests in 46 states leading up to and on Black Friday, including strikes, rallies, flash mobs, direct action and other efforts to inform customers about the illegal actions that Walmart has been taking against its workers," the United Food & Commercial Workers union, or UFCW, said on its website.
Walmart, the biggest US employer with 1.3 million "associates," the term it uses for its employees, has no union representation.
But the labor actions have drawn support from the UFCW, the powerful UAW autoworkers union, and Robert Reich, a former labor secretary in the Clinton administration, among others.
Spearheading the demonstrations is OUR Walmart, or Organization United for Respect at Walmart.
The group said on its website it had taken care to make sure the employees' demonstrations -- in search of "decent pay, regular hours, affordable healthcare and respect" -- were orderly and do not unlawfully disrupt Walmart operations.
The auto-workers union said that because of Walmart's massive size, the company "has enormous power to set the trends not just for the retail and service industries, but for the economy as a whole."
Walmart's low wages, limited access to health care and no retirement, the union said, have a ripple-effect throughout all jobs.
While the family of Sam Walton, Walmart's founder, has as much wealth as the bottom 42 percent of all American families combined, Walmart employees earn an average of 8.81 an hour, it said.
"The widening inequality reflected in the gap between the pay of Walmart workers and the returns to Walmart investors, including the Walton family, haunts the American economy," Reich wrote in post to his blog titled, "Why You Shouldn't Shop at Walmart on Friday."
One protester outside a Walmart near Washington, Dan Hindman, told CBS News that "Walmart needs to learn that it's not fair how they treat us."
Wal-Mart Stores last week filed a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board to try to block the Black Friday strikes.
On Friday, Walmart said in a statement that "only 26 protests occurred at stores last night and many of them did not include any Walmart associates."
In addition, Walmart US said it had its "best ever Black Friday events," with larger crowds than last year.
In the first hours of the sale, customers snapped up more than 1.8 million towels, 1.3 million televisions and 1.3 million dolls, it said.
According to the National Retail Federation, up to 147 million shoppers were expected to visit stores and shop online on Black Friday and over the weekend.