If You Build It, They Will Protest

Thousands in L.A. rally over a planned Chinatown Walmart location. Has the retail supergiant reached a tipping point?

Thousands gathered in downtown Los Angeles on Saturday to protest a planned Chinatown Walmart location. (Photo: Getty Images)

Jul 2, 2012· 2 MIN READ
Originally from Baltimore, Oliver lives and writes on a quiet, tree-lined street in Brooklyn.

Walmart has yet to set its big foot in downtown Los Angeles, and if last Saturday is any indication, thousands of Angelenos want it to stay that way.

Billed as possibly the largest mass protest in history against the retail giant, thousands of union members, community leaders, and citizens rallied against the construction of a Walmart Neighborhood Market in Los Angeles’ historic Chinatown district. The planned 33,000-square-foot location would be the closest Walmart to downtown.

“I’ve lived in Los Angeles for 26 years without a Walmart, and we were just fine,” said Rage Against the Machine’s Tom Morello, who performed at the protest along with fellow musician Ben Harper. “Let’s keep these sons of bitches out of L.A.”

The Los Angeles Times reported that in March the L.A. City Council approved a freeze on large chain retailers, but Walmart’s building permits for the store were OK’d a day before the council voted.

Despite efforts to change their reputation, the retail giant continues to butt heads with activists around the country discontent with the company’s low wages and dubious business practices. Over the weekend, protestors kicked off the event with a benefit Friday night, the Huffington Post reports. Last month, protestors in Watertown, Massachussetts, gathered at the site of a proposed store location with signs reading, “No To Big Box Stores.” And in March, police clashed with protestors in in Loma Linda, California.

Major points of contention among Walmart opponenets are wages and the company’s reliance on public healthcare for many of their employees. Walmart does not allow employees to unionize, which is why so many workers feel powerless. In addition, the company has been widely accused of sexist practices, which led to over a million women banding together to take the company to the Supreme Court over lost wages (the court dismissed the case on the grounds that there was not enough similarity among the cases to treat the women as a single defendant).

“We are here to say no to low-wage jobs,” Maria Elena Durazo was quoted as saying in the L.A. Times. Durazo is executive secretary-treasurer of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor. “Wal-Mart is how the 1 percent hurts the 99 percent, and we won’t stand for it in L.A. Until you stop selling poverty, we don’t want you in L.A.”

The corporate behemoth has also been under fire in recent months for other questionable business practices. Their public relations agency was recently caught going undercover as a reporter at an anti-Walmart rally (the agency was later fired). In April, The New York Times revealed that the company had been using rampant bribery to gain a stronghold in Mexico. And most recently, the company was forced to suspend one of their seafood distributors after allegations it violated federal labor laws.

To its credit, Walmart is responding to the criticism with action, making significant strides in recent years. Full-time hourly employees are paid an average of $11.86 nationwide, up from $9.68 in 2005. The company has responded to demands to include organic milk and produce in their stores, and their smaller Neighborhood Market stores have been praised for augmenting, rather than taking over, local communities.

But Walmart still has some catching up to do with companies such as Costco. There, workers get paid an average of $17 an hour and 82 percent have healthcare coverage, compared to less than half of Walmart employees. As Wayne Casio notes in the Harvard Business Review, not only do Costco workers pay just eight percent of their healthcare premiums (as compared to Walmart employees paying 33 percent), but 91 percent of Costco's employees are also covered by retirement plans, as opposed to just 64 percent of employees at Wal-Mart-owned Sam’s Club.

Increasingly, savvy consumers are looking to spend their money at places with ethical and moral practices. That attitude, it seems, is carrying over to the political arena—just last week, three prominent mayoral candidates in Los Angeles announced that they would not be taking donations from the retailer. But Walmart may well win the battle in Chinatown. The question is whether it’s worth the cost of plummeting public opinion.

Has the bad press kept you from shopping at Wal-Mart? Let us know in the COMMENTS.

Oliver Lee has been covering social justice and other issues for TakePart since 2009. Originally from Baltimore, he lives and writes on a quiet, tree-lined street in Brooklyn. Email Oliver | @oliverung