Current and former Walmart workers protested at the Brooklyn headquarters of Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign Wednesday, calling on Clinton to address Walmart's pay and labor practices and noting her "long-standing ties" to the company, where she served as a board member from 1986 to 1992.
The protest came a day after the Service Employees International Union, a powerhouse in the labor movement and backer of the Fight For $15 minimum wage campaign, officially endorsed Clinton for president. While Clinton has spoken in support of a $12 minimum federal hourly wage, she has stopped short of calling for the $15 minimum that is becoming a widespread demand among labor activists.
After a heated exchange with security in the building lobby, the protesters — including seven who are fasting as part of a national hunger strike against the retailer — had an impromptu sidewalk meeting with Clinton campaign labor outreach director Nikki Budzinski.
"I hear you. We hear you," she told the group. "We know this is an important issue."
Initially, building management asked the workers to leave the lobby and threatened to call the police, before eventually agreeing to deliver a letter signed by the fasting workers to the campaign offices.
"This week, in NYC, and across the country... [we] are fasting for $15 an hour and full-time, predictable schedules," the workers wrote. "Instead of hiding our hunger and hiding the reality of skipping meals, we are taking our struggles with food insecurity public.
"We all need our country's largest employer to set a new standard, and we need you to lead," read the letter, addressed to Clinton. The workers specifically asked for a meeting with Clinton and for her to publicly call on Walmart to raise pay and provide more predictable schedules.
Talking with the workers after the letter was delivered, Budzinski underscored Clinton's commitment to issues the advocates mentioned, including paid family leave, paid sick leave, and raising the minimum wage. She listened to workers emotionally recount their difficulty paying for groceries for their families and sleeping in cars in the Walmart parking lot.
“This is happening right now,” said Mary Watkines, who has been fasting since Monday and worked at Walmart for 15 years. “The hunger is real, you know. Children shouldn’t have to suffer because their parents can’t make it on minimum wage... And we need Hillary’s help with this, because it’s been a long fight."
In a statement, Walmart said it is "proud of the wages and benefits package we offer. Our average full-time hourly associate earns more than $13 an hour in addition to the opportunity for quarterly cash bonuses, matching 401(k) and healthcare benefits." The company announced earlier this year that its minimum wage would rise to to $10 an hour in 2016.
Budzinski said that Clinton is dedicated to raising the minimum wage, adding, “She’s not going to stop talking about raising wages. She knows this is important to addressing inequality.”
Since Monday, more than 100 current and former Walmart workers have been on a liquid-only diet, according to organizers, and they will continue to fast, subsisting on water, apple juice, black coffee and chicken broth for the fifteen days leading up to Black Friday, one of the biggest shopping days of the year.
"While Walmart employees can barely put food on the table this Thanksgiving, Walmart continues to thrive as the largest supplier of groceries in the nation," the group said in a statement.
Clinton today released a video publicly thanking the SEIU's 2 million members for yesterday's endorsement. She specifically named home care, child care, and fast food workers in the message, all of whom have been organizing recently for better pay and working conditions in campaigns backed by the SEIU.
"I was thrilled to celebrate with you when fast food workers won a $15 minimum in NY, a big victory in your important efforts to fight for 15 and for a union in communities across America," Clinton said in the video. "Your fights are my fights."
“This is about the future for our children and grandchildren,” Watkines said Wednesday. Budzinski agreed.