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The Wal-Mart protests that weren't

MEXICO CITY, MEXICO - APRIL 23: Wal-Mart store signage is seen from the store lot on April 23, 2012 in Mexico City, Mexico. According to reports, Wal-Mart de Mexico orchestrated a campaign of bribery to win market dominance by paying bribes to obtain permits in parts of the country. Wal-Mart Inc, along with two U.S. congressmen is conducting internal investigations over the allegations. (Photo by Daniel Aguilar/Getty Images)

The Friday after Thanksgiving is one of the slowest news days of the year. Very little happens, other than people shooting each other in retail stores' parking lots and burning down their houses while trying to fry turkeys. That helps to explain the overabundance of coverage last week for protests against Wal-Mart stores.

Wal-Mart employees were supposedly going to walk off the job en masse, rising up against the retail giant's abusive practices and low pay. "From this day on, 'Black Friday' should be remembered as a pivotal day for working people at Wal-Mart and everywhere," Mary Kay Henry, international president of the Service Employees International Union, said in a statement.

In the end, there might have been more stories written than there were actual Wal-Mart employees who walked out. And shoppers ignored the bused-in union protesters as they trampled one another in search of bargains. Wal-Mart reported its best Black Friday ever. The grassroots movement against the store lacks grass roots, it would seem.

A protest at a store in Maryland's Landover Hills drew either 350 people (the protesters' estimate) or 100 (CNN's figure). A Washington Post story identified only one protester as a Wal-Mart employee -- and she apparently did not work at that store.

The Chicago Tribune reported an almost identical scene in the city's Chatham neighborhood. Only one person at the protest actually worked at the Wal-Mart there. Four busloads of outside protesters accounted for the rest.

A local CBS affiliate in Philadelphia could identity only two employees protesting at a store northeast of the city. It said "most" of the protesters at the store in the city's southeast weren't employees either.

One employee told CBS she was baffled by the protesters: "[Wal-Mart] give[s] us benefits, they give us extras, they give us parties, we get bonuses, this is all wrong."

That's a far cry from the thousands of walkouts that the groups OUR Walmart and Making Change at Walmart had promised. Both groups are actually projects of the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union, whose members mostly work for the nonunion retail giant's rivals. The UFCW has a long history of attacking Wal-Mart, whose business model threatens to overwhelm the unionized chains. Last week, the company filed a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board, arguing the UFCW's activism amounted to harassment.

The two groups ultimately claimed 1,000 protests in 46 states with "hundreds and hundreds" of workers joining in. Wal-Mart, on the other hand, says that only 26 stores reported protests and that nationwide, only 50 employees participated. That's out of a total workforce of 1.4 million people. I'm not aware of any independent analysis, but the examples above are at least consistent with Wal-Mart's side of the story.

If Wal-Mart is such an awful company, why didn't more workers join in the Black Friday protests? Perhaps because it not so different from other retailers. The website PayScale.com puts the average wage for a Wal-Mart retail sales associate at between $7.75 and $12.18, which is better than rival Target's $7.53-to-$11.33 range. Overall, PayScale.com says Wal-Mart pays just 2 percent below the industry average.

Which is not to say that Wal-Mart is the ideal company to work for. It was forced to pay $4.8 million in back wages this year in a settlement with the Labor Department in unpaid overtime.

Still, it is the nation's largest single employer at a time of high unemployment. Walmart claims it received 5 million job applications last year.

The real advantage of Walmart is to consumers: Jason Furman, an economist who has worked in the Obama administration, has estimated its prices save U.S. consumers $50 billion a year. Walmart employees get 10 percent off on merchandise, too. That's a huge benefit to the poor that doesn't cost taxpayers a dime.

A few years ago, I asked a prominent liberal activist why his group didn't try to organize a boycott of Wal-Mart in addition to its other efforts. It wouldn't work, he conceded.

"It's really hard to tell people not to shop at the place with the lowest prices during a recession," he said.

Quite so.

Sean Higgins (shiggins@washingtonexaminer.com) is a senior editorial writer for The Washington Examiner. Follow him on Twitter at @seanghiggins.