In what was billed as the largest mass protest in history against the retail giant, an estimated 10,000 union members and community leaders rallied on Saturday against the building of a Wal-Mart Neighborhood Market in Los Angeles’ historic Chinatown. It’s one of three Neighborhood Markets slated for Southern California, carrying with them the threat of low wages, harm to small businesses in the area and, in the eyes of the protest organizers, poverty.
“Wal-Mart’s chief product is poverty,” said Maria Elena Durazo, the head of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, one of the lead organizers of the event. “Wal-Mart gets rich by keeping their workers poor. Wal-Mart gets rich by taxpayers paying for the health care and well-being of their workers through Medicaid and food stamps.”
It’s unclear exactly what the strategy is to stop the Chinatown Wal-Mart, as the company already has permits to build a 33,000 square foot retail space on the first floor of an existing apartment building. A day before the Los Angeles City Council voted unanimously to put a moratorium on big box stores this March, Wal-Mart, in what labor leaders described as a miraculous event, received the building permits.
Perhaps the plan is to rally mass action against Wal-Mart, to raise negative publicity and force the retail giant to change their plans. The presence of Wal-Mart associates who complained of poverty wages and maltreatment speaks to that. But so far that has not worked, as this quote from the company yesterday shows:
A Wal-Mart official downplayed Saturday’s demonstration, saying “the special interests fell well short of their goal” in terms of turnout.
“Clearly, the vast majority of customers see Wal-Mart as part of the solution when it comes to things like jobs, healthier foods and sustainability,” Steven V. Restivo, senior director of community affairs for Wal-Mart, said in a statement. “We remain committed to serving customers here and look forward to opening new Walmart Neighborhood Market stores soon in Panorama City, Altadena and downtown Los Angeles.”
Union leaders joined with neighborhood groups in Chinatown and Rage Against the Machine guitarist Tom Morello in giving speeches at the event. Before playing “This Land is Your Land,” Morello said to the crowd, which spanned several blocks down Broadway in Chinatown, “I’ve lived in Los Angeles for 26 years without a Wal-Mart, and we were just fine. Let’s keep these sons of bitches out of LA with their poverty wages and sweatshop products.” Wal-Mart actually already has four stores in different parts of LA, including Crenshaw Boulevard in South Central and Baldwin Hills.
The sweatshop aspect recently came to a head, with revelations of forced labor at a Wal-Mart seafood supplier in Louisiana. Yesterday, Wal-Mart suspended the supplier, C.J.’s Seafood. However, the National Guestworker Alliance, which found the 24-hour shifts and horrible conditions at the seafood supplier, just released a list of 644 citations at 12 other Wal-Mart suppliers in the United States, all of which use guest workers. The violations at 12 suppliers is out of only 18 surveyed. This is clearly part of the business model for Wal-Mart, known for squeezing its suppliers to lower prices, leading to worker abuses down the supply chain.
But if the goal is to deliver low prices, it’s hard to understand how they’ll be able to compete in Chinatown. The neighborhood is packed with small, family-owned clothing, jewelry, Chinese herb, produce and supply stores, all of which sell their wares already at fairly low prices. At Lien Hoa on Broadway, a pound of Granny Smith apples will set you back 69 cents. Cucumbers are $1.00 a pound. Another store sold blue jeans for about $7 a pair. I’m not sure if even Wal-Mart can compete with this.
Nevertheless, shopkeepers are worried that they will get nudged out by the superstore. “We are concerned,” said the owner of Tambaba Fashion in broken English. Older residents of the area looked either bemused or nonplussed by the large rally of thousands, led by a big banner reading “Wal-Mart=Poverty.”
Local political leaders like the city councilman for the area, Richard Alarcon, and 2013 Los Angeles mayoral candidate Wendy Greuel were on hand. Many of the speakers looked past Chinatown, where the fix could be in, with Wal-Mart holding the permits in hand. “This is about all working men and women in this country,” Durazo said. The language of the Occupy movement was evident in the protest as well, as members of the United Food and Commercial Workers led chants of “Wal-Mart hurts the 99%.”
One of the more amusing moments featured a fake “Wal-Mart board member” named Felonious Acts, who urged the crowd to support the superstore’s vision. “Why give your hard-earned dollars to local businesses that invest in the community? Why not just make the Walton family rich,” he said.