Striking Walmart workers rally in Bentonville, Arkansas, on June 3, 2013. (Photo courtesy of Michael Blain)
Bentonville, Arkansas—Competing chants pierced the air, and punctuated one another, as a Walmart pep rally and a union-backed protest took place some fifty feet apart this afternoon.
On a public sidewalk across from Walmart’s “home office” headquarters, international Walmart workers and fired warehouse workers joined striking employees in a demonstration calling for Walmart to avert future deaths in its international supply chain. On the other side of a narrow parking lot, a few of the blue-shirted Walmart employees brought to Bentonville by Walmart management began snapping cell phone photos of their striking co-workers, who sang, “Which side are you on Walmart…. Are you on the side of safety or on the side of murder?” Then a series of well-dressed Walmart staff began leading the blue-shirted employees in the company’s classic cheer spelling out its name: “Give me a W!” “W!” “Give me an A!” “A!”… “What’s that spell?” “Walmart!”
As successive busses drove up to drop off more company-invited Walmart workers under the Home Office awning, managers led the blue-shirted workers in cheering for their arriving co-workers and chanting the letters of the company’s name. The protesters across the lot from them kept up their slow-paced song, sometimes punctuated with “Whose Walmart? OUR Walmart!” and “Stand Up! Live Better!” Some hoisted flags and signs identifying their home countries, and giant cut-outs spelling out “1,239 KILLED,” the combined death toll from a building collapse and a fire in buildings where Walmart apparel has been produced.
The “What’s that spell?” chant continued as Bangladesh labor leader Kalpona Akter took the mic on the sidewalk to call for Walmart to join a binding building safety agreement, and as protesting workers read Bible verses in four languages. Then a half-dozen striking Walmart employees walked into the middle of the parking lot, where they were met by Walmart security and local police. As co-workers sang or chanted on either side of the lot, Seattle striker Preston Johnson presented a security officer with a three-foot-tall list of the retailers who’ve signed onto the labor-backed Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh; it included a dotted line at the bottom for Walmart CEO Mike Duke, who hasn’t. “1,239 folks have died because of factories that were unsafe,” said Johnson, “and we found out that Walmart is one of the companies that had workers making clothes there.” As in past Bentonville confrontations, the Walmart security officer told the workers that human resources staff were available to meet with them individually, but not collectively; the workers declined and marched away.