Elizabeth, NJ—About sixty activists gathered early this morning outside the Port of Newark to protest the arrival of a ship they said carried Walmart goods from Bangladesh. Hoisting cardboard tombstones spelling out Walmart’s name, and garments emblazoned with the names of workers who died in the New York City Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire, the crowd declared the retail giant culpable for the deaths of 112 workers in a similar fire last month in Bangladesh. Chants included, “One, two three four, don’t let that boat come ashore! Five, six, seven, eight, don’t touch that shit, don’t move that freight!”
“The supply chain needs to change…” Alliance for a Greater New York (ALIGN) organizer Martiza Silva-Farrell told the crowd. “This is a start.”
Activists said they originally gathered closer to the dock in hopes of more directly confronting the incoming ship and convincing some dock workers to refuse to unload its goods, but agreed—after police threatened arrests—to move to a space along a nearby highway. While some had expected that the action, promoted as “Block the Boat,” would include civil disobedience, it ended around 9 am without arrests.
Photos published by The Nation last month revealed the presence of Walmart-branded apparel at the Tazreen Factory where the deadly fire took place. Walmart has maintained that it had terminated its relationship with Tazreen prior to the fire, that its goods were being produced there because of a rogue supplier which disregarded the retailer’s instructions, and that it promotes fire safety. Reports by Bloomberg and The New York Times this month revealed that multiple Walmart suppliers were active in the factory as recently as this year, and that Walmart rejected a 2011 proposal under which retailers would have contributed to covering the costs of safety improvements in Bangladesh factories. Walmart did not respond to a request for comment Monday night.
Some of this morning’s activists were locals, including Cynthia Mellon, who’s involved in efforts to keep a Walmart store out of Newark. “That kind of store has no place inside of an old city that’s trying to revitalize itself,” said Mellon, an organizer with the local Ironbound Community Corporation. Many came from New York City on buses sponsored by the Remember the Triangle Fire Coalition. A handful drove up from Maryland, including Leon Swain, who said he made the trip because “you don’t want a boat to come here to bring such tragedy.”
“There are sweatshop issues in [Walmart’s] retail stores and its warehourses here in the US,” said Northeastern University junior Claire Lewis, “as well as quite clearly in its factories overseas.” Lewis is a member of the national coordinating committee of United Students Against Sweatshops.