Thirteen people arrested, released during protests at Renton Walmart Thursday | UPDATE

Activists on Rainier Avenue South prepare to be arrested Thursday during protests at the Renton Walmart. - Tracey Compton, Renton Reporter
Activists on Rainier Avenue South prepare to be arrested Thursday during protests at the Renton Walmart.
— image credit: Tracey Compton, Renton Reporter

UPDATE: Renton Police corrected an earlier report they gave on the number of protesters arrested, cited and released on the scene at Thursday's protests at the Renton Walmart.

A Civil Disobedience Unit, arrested 13 protesters yesterday afternoon, not 11, as police said Friday morning.

The Civil Disobedience Unit "is a co-operative team of Valley/South King County (police) agencies that includes Renton, Kent, Tukwila, Auburn, Port of Seattle, and Federal Way," wrote Terri Vickers, a Renton police spokesperson, in an email.

The Bellevue Police Department and Washington State Patrol also provided assistance to the officers at the protest.

*The headline has been changed to reflect updated information from the Renton Police Department.

About a dozen protesters were arrested on Rainier Avenue South, in front of the Renton Walmart Thursday morning, after a peaceful rally for workers rights.

Among those arrested were current Walmart employees who got on stage earlier in the protest, wearing sandwich boards identifying their stores. Husband and wife, Walmart workers, Edie and Larry Slowey, of Port Angeles; Betty Shove and Deborah Williams, both Mount Vernon store staff; Gerry Paladan, recently fired from Federal Way Walmart and Patricia Locks, Federal Way store staff were among those arrested by police at the protest.

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The workers were joined at the rally by activists, union and community members, church representatives and even a "gaggle of grannies," singing their opposition to cheap goods and corporate greed.

"It's about jobs, justice and freedom," said Tom Geiger, state communications director, for the United Food and Commercial Workers 21 union.

Many of the protest speakers noted last week's 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, saying there is still work to be done to secure workers' rights, respect and equality.

"The Walmart struggle is a very American struggle," Geiger said.

The group, facilitated by Organization United for Respect at Walmart, or OUR Walmart, staged their protest on the grounds of the former Ford dealership, while police blocked off Rainier from SW Grady Way to SW Seventh Street for about an hour.

After the speeches, singing and rally cries for support, the protesters marched in a circle on Rainier, in front of the store's parking lot. When police signaled for the group to disband and move off of the street, all but a small circle of protesters left Rainier. After sitting down with their signs, the protesters were asked once more to move by police and then one by one they were arrested.

While each protester was led away, the organizers noted their sacrifice and got the crowd to cheer their support.

"We're here to stand up for workers' rights for higher wages, for respect," said Vivian Sherman, who came down from Bellingham to protest in Renton.

Sherman has worked at the Bellingham Walmart for the last five years, and participated in protests for workers rights for about three years. She claims the company is not fair and nice and "not how good business should work."

Sherman has passed buttons out at the Bellingham Walmart in the past and protested in other cities that get more attention, she said.

Sherman doesn't see her participation in protests like this one as dangerous because "we have rights in this country and we shouldn't be afraid to use them," she said.

Nationwide protests were planned Thursday calling for better jobs at Walmart. The Renton location is the closest store to Seattle, which does not have a Walmart within city limits. According to protest organizers and Walmart management, no Renton employees took part in the protest.

Inside the Renton store, some employees didn't understand what all the fuss was about.

"I'm not sure what that's all about," said Marissa Bocoum, Renton Walmart employee. "I've been here seven years and I know that we do have a voice and they do listen to us."

Her co-worker Josie Merveus echoed her sentiment.

"Me working at Walmart, I can say nothing negative about it," Merveus said. "I've been with them for about eight years; I can't complain."

Both women are in their 30s, have kids and spoke in an interview inside the store about a pretty steady climb through promotions to their present positions.

Bocoum started with Walmart at $12 an hour, as an overnight stocker. Now she makes about $18 per hour, as a zone supervisor, she said. Merveus was hired at first as cashier at $10.50 per hour, then let go and rehired, eventually also becoming a zone supervisor. Merveus declined to say how much she makes now, but said she's happy with it.

During the protests outside Thursday, speakers talked about retaliation they claim Walmart has carried out against employees, who speak out for better jobs and rights at work. Protesters called reinstatement of workers, who've been fired for striking and for Walmart to provide full time work with a minimum of salary of $25,000.

The Renton store has been the backdrop for similar protests last November on Black Friday, in April and June.

Jeremy Smith, Renton store director, called the protests disrespectful to customers, store associates and a nuisance, more than anything.

"They have their opinion, we have ours," he said.

Walmart is a great career opportunity for tons of people, Smith said, including himself in the bunch.

"I tell my associates it's like the equivalent of one team winning the the Super Bowl for 30 straight years," he said. "Once you're the biggest and best and you've won the retail Super Bowl, if you will, there's a big bull's-eye on your back."

About 74 percent of the Renton store staff are full time employees and 26 percent are part time and temporary staff, said the director. Around 50 additional staff were hired temporarily to construct the 30,000 additional square feet for the super store planned at the site.

Smith said that the average wage at Walmart in Washington state is $13.47 and the Renton store's average is higher, at about $14 per hour. He also said the Renton store has a higher ratio than other Walmart stores for full time employees.

Smith could not speak to how many employees participated in the company's range of benefits packages. Although there is no traditional, chain-of-command-type structure, he said, to file complaints, Smith praised the company's open door policy, as did his staff.

"There's no retaliation for going as high as you want, if you have an issue," said Bocoum. "And, I've used it before, for like issues of small problems I've had. And I've been heard and the problems and issues do get taken care of."

The two female employees both agreed that the company can't please everybody.

"If you're willing to compromise, Walmart's willing to compromise," said Bocoum.

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