Thanks For Shopping at Wal-Mart -- NOT
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"Wal-Mart is going to take your job," speaker after speaker told the crowd of mostly African-American unionists assembled in Grace Cathedral, an evangelical church in Uniondale, Long Island.
Like workers and other activists in more than 100 cities nationwide participating in a "Day of Action" initiated by the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW), the assembled were preparing to march up the street to Wal-Mart to protest the corporation's horrendous labor practices and urge its employees to unionize.
"If we fail to lift them up," one union organizer said of the Wal-Mart workers, "they'll drag us down."
UFCW officials say that nationwide, Wal-Mart, whose workers earn far less than the industry average and must pay for their own health insurance, is endangering wages and benefits for their members, many of whom work in grocery stores that face increasing competition from the retailer. As speakers enumerated the company's violations of labor rights in China and in the United States alike, loud murmurs of agreement swept through the church, giving it the feel of a revival meeting. Grace Cathedral's bishop, R.W. Harris, whose congregation includes many Wal-Mart workers, told the crowd: "If Jesus were here today, he'd be at 886 Jerusalem Avenue with you," protesting Wal-Mart.
Some 400 unionized workers showed up, including Melissa Webb, a UFCW Local 1500 member. The shop steward at the Shop Rite next door to the Uniondale Wal-Mart, Webb enjoys the advantages of union membership. When she began working at Shop Rite five years ago, she made $5 an hour, and she now makes $19. But she and her co-workers were protesting out of solidarity as well as self-interest.
"I get real emotional when people aren't treated well," Webb said. A few years ago, she said, some of the workers at this Wal-Mart, "mostly African-American females" like herself, wanted to join the union. "Now they're not there."
The Day of Action protests, from Scarborough, Maine, to Waipahu, Hawaii, inaugurated a new "Peoples Campaign for Justice at Wal-Mart." The campaign, which is backed by an enthusiastic coalition of feminist, environmental, religious, anti-sweatshop and a wide range of other organizations, represents an attempt by the union to bring its case against Wal-Mart to the public.
In Uniondale, an aptly named working-class and heavily unionized town, the public heard the message. The protesters, carrying pro-union signs and chanting "Bring the Union to Wal-Mart," were greeted by jubilant honks, waves and smiles from passing drivers. Most protesters relished the support of the honking cars, but it wasn't enough for Melissa Webb, who wanted love and solidarity from all of Uniondale. When one bus drove by in silence, she shouted indignantly: "Come on, bus driver, you know you're union!"
Elsewhere, some former Wal-Mart employees participated in the nationwide event. Gretchen Adams, a former Wal-Mart manager who now works for the UFCW, spoke at a rally in Louisville, Kentucky. Linda Gruen, who recently quit working at a Las Vegas Sam's Club (a division of Wal-Mart), now works for the UFCW as well; she traveled to Seattle to help organize an action there.
"As an ex-worker, I'm really glad that the issues we had can be brought to the attention of other union members and the general public," she says. "A lot of people think it's a great place to work because they see those bullshit commercials on TV!"
While most current Wal-Mart workers stayed away (the company has fired workers for union-related activity) April Hotchkiss of Pueblo, Colorado, who had the day off Nov. 21, said she would have participated had there been a Day of Action in her town.
"I would have loved to rally that store. The prices are low because they pay people crap and the healthcare is a joke. I tell customers, 'You're benefiting from me getting screwed. Thanks for shopping at Wal-Mart!'" She laughs: "Hey, I try to be positive!"
Liza Featherstone is a New York City-based journalist whose work on student and youth activism has appeared in The Nation, Lingua Franca, the New York Times, the Washington Post and Ms. She is co-author of "Students Against Sweatshops: The Making of a Movement" (Verso 2002).