Labor

26 Arrested at Walmart Protest Outside Alice Walton's Luxury NYC Condo

New York doesn't even have a Walmart store, but the company still casts a shadow over the city.

Photo Credit: Allegra Kirkland

One by one, 26 men and women in bright green T-shirts were handcuffed and guided into waiting paddywagons by grim-faced NYPD officers. The protesters gathered on the sidewalk cheered them on, their shouts of “Si se puede!” disrupting the early afternoon quiet on one of the most expensive streets in one of the most expensive neighborhoods in New York City. Armed with multilingual signs and accompanied by a brass band, these hundreds of workers, activists and allies rallied in front of the Park Avenue condo of Walmart heiress Alice Walton, asking that the voices of low-wage workers be heard.

“Alice, Alice, you can’t hide; we can see your greedy side!” they chanted, as curious tourists snapped photos on their camera phones and the building’s doormen exchanged dark looks. Unsurprisingly, Alice never showed up.

Walmart, the country’s largest retailer and the nation’s largest private employer, is notorious for its poor labor practices. Most recently, the company made headlines for cutting health benefits for part-time workers, but it's also been called out for discriminating against pregnant employees, requiring workers to buy their own uniforms, and forcing people to work off-the-clock. The retail chain and its grinning smiley face mascot have become the symbol of our exploitative, low-wage service economy. 

But as it turns out, there aren’t any Walmart stores in the New York City area. Thanks to opposition from residents and the City Council, the company has been thwarted in its repeated efforts to open a branch here. Still, according to the crowd in front of Alice Walton’s $25 million apartment, Walmart touches their lives in profound ways. 

“What Walmart is doing is hurting New York City workers every single day,” said Maritza Silva-Farrell, an organizer from the Alliance for a Greater New York. “Because they’re the largest employer in the country, they’re setting the standards. The worst aspects of the Walmart business model have been implemented by other low-wage retailers, fast food chains and other service industries.”

At Thursday’s march, workers from the carwash, retail, fast food and construction industries came together to air their common grievances: inadequate compensation, part-time hours that don’t provide a living wage, schedules that change from week to week, leaving them unable to pursue secondary employment or spend time with their loved ones. A full 37 percent of wage earners in New York City are paid less than $15 an hour, and nearly half of the city’s residents are classified as poor or nearly poor. The real point of the march was to acknowledge that they are all in it together.

“We all support the cause,” said Refugio Denicia, speaking in Spanish. “Workers support other workers; nobody else is going to do it.”

For the past 16 years, Denicia has worked six days a week at a carwash in Queens, where he earns a paltry $3.25 an hour. The rest of his $8 hourly wage is supposed to come from tips but he says he rarely makes that amount. Like many of the workers at the march, Denicia spoke only a few words of English.

Ruth Perez, a Brooklyn native who works as an assistant to the general manager at a Century 21 department store, used her day off to join the action. Because she’s worked at the store for 17 years, she says she now earns enough to get by, but knows that many others do not.

“We’re all hard workers and we all deserve a decent wage. When you’re making $7 or $8 an hour and the costs of living keep going up, it’s just not possible.”

Though low wages and high living costs are hardly unique to New York, other cities have come much further when it comes to improving working conditions for their lowest paid residents. Just this summer, Seattle’s city council passed a $15 minimum wage law and higher hourly minimums are on the November ballot in San Francisco and Oakland. As the New York Times editorial board put it in a recent op-ed, “New York State and New York City are lagging, not leading, in the drive for higher wages.”

Last November, Bill de Blasio won the mayoralty by promising to tackle income inequality in what the nonprofit Fiscal Policy Institute calls the nation’s most unequal city. He has made several tangible policy strides, such as expanding the city’s living wage law for 18,000 minimum wage workers who don’t receive benefits and extending the right to paid sick leave to half a million people. But for the workers on Park Avenue, the biggest change is that they now feel like the person in City Hall is listening to them—or even knows they exist. After all, these are the people who voted de Blasio into office and whom he swore to help: workers, residents of the outer boroughs, immigrants, minorities, women.

Antonio Ortiz, a mechanic at the Sweet & Low factory in the Brooklyn Navy Yard, said in Spanish, “I have much more hope than I did with Bloomberg. [de Blasio] seems like a person who doesn’t just look at one group or one neighborhood. He cares about people from different races, from different backgrounds.” 

In contrast to his predecessor, de Blasio has repeatedly spoken out against the giant retailer, insisting that Walmart has no place in New York City. His words were echoed yesterday by Public Advocate Letitia James and Comptroller Scott Stringer, who met with workers and labor activists at City Hall. For now, it seems, there is no chance a Walmart store will open in the five boroughs. But New York City workers will continue to beat back the long shadow that the company casts even here.

Betty Walston (“not to be mixed up with Walton!”), a middle-aged, ponytailed union worker from UFCW in New Jersey, had some parting words for the Walmart heirs.

“Pay your workers decently. They don’t expect to get rich. Let them not feel guilty for having to decide, every day, should I go to work or stay with my family? Just be human.” 

Allegra Kirkland is AlterNet's associate managing editor. Her writing has appeared in the Chicago Reader, Salon, Daily Serving and The Nation.

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