Organizers called it “the largest Walmart protest in the history of the US”: thousands of marchers in Los Angeles’s Chinatown on Saturday morning, hoping to stop the low-wage, anti-union employer from opening a new store there. The rally featured music by Tom Morello of Rage Against the Machine and Ben Harper, both of whom played in front of a banner that read “Walmart = Poverty,” underneath iconic Chinese dragons. Featured speakers included Dolores Huerta and US Representative Judy Chu (D-El Monte), who said, “We must stop Walmart.”
Steve Earle, who didn’t attend, posted a YouTube video of support, including a song from his next album, “I’m thinkin’ ’bout burnin’ the Walmart down.” “I’ve never known of Walmart to be a good neighbor in any town it’s ever moved into,” he added. “Y’all stick together out there.”
The store represents a new strategy for the company, which has been blocked from building new superstores in Los Angeles for years by activist pressure on the City Council. The Chinatown store, Walmart says, will be a “Neighborhood Market”—a grocery operation about a fifth the size of a supercenter, in an existing retail space. That makes it possible for the firm to avoid the permit process for new construction of a big box store, along with the public review now required by the LA City Council. The firm plans to open a dozen more “Neighborhood Markets” in California, according to the Los Angeles Times.
"Such stores are wedges to get even bigger stores into the city," said UCSB historian Nelson Lichtenstein, author of The Retail Revolution, a history of Walmart. That’s because, "by themselves, they’re probably not going to be too profitable."
On Tuesday, at a Walmart event celebrating the beginning of construction in Chinatown, Kim Sentovich, senior vice president of Walmart’s Pacific store division, said “Everything we do is connected with our mission of helping people to save money so they can live better.”
Walmart says its full-time hourly employees in California are paid an average wage of $12.79—higher than the state’s minimum wage of $8 an hour. But Walmart does not allow most employees to work full time, and part-time workers get lower pay and worse benefits. Girshriella Greene, a supervisor at a Walmart in the Crenshaw district, told an earlier news conference, “I don’t make enough money to get off county healthcare or welfare. I make $9.80.”
LA’s Chinatown, north of downtown, has become the center of a youthful arts scene as Chinese immigrants have moved to eastern suburbs like Monterey Park over the last few decades. Gallery owners and artists have helped organize the protests, including a fundraiser Friday night at Human Resources gallery, where the popular indie-rock band No Age played and labor leaders spoke.
“With the crowd already sweaty and ear-worn” from loud opening acts, Paul T. Bradley of the LA Weekly reported, “No Age began its unrelenting onslaught just after 11pm.… Shirtless dudes tossed around other shirtless dudes as aging organizers and pro-labor folks kept their distance.”
The protest was organized by a coalition of labor, community and faith organizations, including LAANE, the Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy, the LA County Federation of Labor, and a number of grassroots community groups, along with Making Change at Walmart.