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Destroying Communities, Abusing Workers: What's (Still) The Matter With Wal-Mart

The company that has shaped the modern economy turned 50 this week, but is a growing wave of protest enough to start forcing Wal-Mart to change?

This past week marked the 50th anniversary of the opening of the first Wal-Mart store. From Rogers, Arkansas, Wal-Mart has sprawled across the globe, opening some 10,000 stores and becoming the world's second-largest corporation—amassing a fortune for the Walton family, and gutting the American middle class.

With all their money and power, it might seem that Wal-Mart's hold on the country is unshakeable. Yet the retail giant is facing a bit of a perfect storm in terms of its reputation right now. Revelations of horrific abuses at one of its U.S. suppliers and of bribes the company paid in Mexico, as well as communities fighting fiercely against Wal-Marts in their neighborhoods, are pushing the big-box giant into damage control mode.

Workers at C.J.'s Seafood, a Wal-Mart vendor in Louisiana, have made headlines with a strike against the company—and they're taking their complaints straight to the top, asking Wal-Mart officials and board members to meet with them to discuss their conditions. They're guestworkers from Mexico, brought in on H-2B visas to work temporarily in the U.S. preparing crawfish for distribution in Wal-Mart stores.

“Some of us work from 2:00 in the morning til 5:00 or 6:00 in the evening and get no paid overtime,” Marta Uvalle, one of the C.J.'s workers, told AlterNet. “Pressures to work got so bad that the supervisors locked the doors so that we couldn't take breaks. When the doors weren't locked we could only take five minute breaks. We were also threatened by the supervisor that if we took too long of a bathroom break or lunch break he would beat us.”

One of the workers finally called 911 for help—which only led to more threats against the workers and their families back in Mexico. Finally, the workers found the National Guestworker Alliance, and organized a strike. Victor Ramos, another of the C.J.'s workers, told AlterNet that they reached out to other guestworkers in other plants and found similar conditions.

“Wal-Mart claims that it has standards for suppliers, so theoretically all they need to do is be enforcing those standards," Saket Soni, an organizer with the National Guestworker Alliance, told AlterNet. But Wal-Mart has refused to meet with the workers, and claimed to have opened an investigation but found nothing.

“If Wal-Mart can't guarantee safety and meet the complaints of eight workers in a small town in Louisiana, how is it going to guarantee the standards of literally hundreds of thousands of workers across the country?” Soni asked. “What the CJ's workers have revealed is the tip of the iceberg.”

Cracks in the Big Box Facade

In Los Angeles, last Saturday marked a different kind of history for the world's largest retailer: around 10,000 people marched in Chinatown in what may have been the largest protest against Wal-Mart in the country.

“We had a huge contingent of residents from Chinatown, supporters of small businesses, as well as workers from all along the supply chain; workers at Wal-Mart, workers at warehouses, truck drivers and some of the suppliers as well,” Aiha Nguyen, a senior researcher and policy analyst at LAANE, an organization that fights for economic justice in Los Angeles, told AlterNet. “It was a very festive environment, we had performances, and it culminated in speeches and more concerts at the Chinatown gates. As we marched down, small businesses came out with signs showing their support for the action.”

The fight against Wal-Mart drew musicians Tom Morello and Steve Earle to join the action, and united local workers and small business owners. Wal-Mart's low wages and low prices are a deadly combination for local businesses and workers; family businesses can't compete with the retailing behemoth's prices, and workers are squeezed as businesses try to cut wages in order to push their own costs down.