March, Rally Inspire but Lack a Clear Call to Action
by MARK GABRISH CONLAN
Copyright © 2012 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved
“We Are One”
Christian Ramirez (right)
Protesters in front of Walmart construction site
Numbers to call to demand a community benefits agreement from Walmart: Aaron Rios, (559) 274-8461; Pedro Anaya, (858) 541-7800 x121
“I want to thank you for coming to my neighborhood, right down the street here,” said Lorena Gonzalez, head of the San Diego-Imperial Counties Central Labor Council, to nearly 1,000 people gathered in Golden Hill Park on Saturday morning, September 22, for a march and rally to protest the Walmart currently under construction in San Diego’s largely Latino Sherman Heights district. “A couple of months ago, when my neighbors and I found that Walmart planned to occupy an historic building in our neighborhood without ever talking to the community, we were a little pissed off, right?”
Gonzalez’ speech kicked off a four-hour event that consisted of an opening rally in the park, a march to Sherman Heights, and a second rally across the street from the Walmart, which is currently under construction on the site of the old San Diego Farmers’ Market. The Sherman Heights community members seemed most upset at the destruction of this historical site — though Walmart is actually keeping the old building’s central tower in place and is using red brick in their new construction to give their store an “historic” veneer — and the likelihood that competition from Walmart will drive existing neighborhood stores out of business.
But Gonzalez’ speech focused more on the general labor case against Walmart, not only their determination to keep unions out but their treatment of their workers and the U.S. economy in general. “Walmart has taken over 200,000 American jobs to China, and made 200,000 American workers lose their jobs,” she said. “Even Right-wing people who think it’s O.K. for Walmart to take jobs to China don’t think it’s O.K. for Walmart to make us pay them over $1.2 billion in tax credits for shipping our jobs overseas.”
The overall event was spirited and committed, but it lacked one important thing: a clear demand for action. Labor officials are governed by the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA), which makes it illegal for a union to call for a so-called “secondary boycott” — meaning that the unions involved in the anti-Walmart campaign can’t tell people not to shop at Walmart. Gonzalez and many of the other speakers focused on lobbying Walmart to sign a so-called “community benefit agreement” with neighborhood organizations in Sherman Heights that would commit them, among other things, to give preference to Sherman Heights residents when they hire for the new store. But Walmart has refused to sign such an agreement or to meet with the neighborhood groups.
The morning rally focused mostly on labor leaders and elected officials, including State Senator Juan Vargas and State Assemblymember Ben Hueso. Last year Vargas carried a bill that would have required “economic impact statements,” similar to the environmental impact reviews California has required on new developments since the 1970’s, in case Walmart or any other retailer wanted to open a store above a certain size in a community. But the bill, which passed the state legislature, was vetoed by Jerry Brown. Hueso has tried to come to the community’s aid by starting a state audit of the permitting process by which Walmart was authorized to build on the historic site. The purpose is to see if San Diego broke its own laws and regulations by fast-tracking Walmart’s permit.
“The Republicans say 47 percent of us don’t matter,” said Vargas — referring to Republican Presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s remarks to a private audience in Boca Raton, Florida last May to the effect that 47 percent of Americans are on the government dole, don’t believe in taking responsibility for their well-being and therefore won’t vote for him. “The Walmart heirs own more stuff than 42 percent of all Americans. They have more wealth than almost half of the U.S. and they made it from ear infections. I can take my daughter to the hospital when she has an ear infection because we have health insurance. The Walmart worker’s daughter can’t go because they don’t have health insurance. Walmart made their money on the backs of their workers, by breaking the people who work for them.”
“It’s really a pleasure to see people wake up,” said Hueso. “The middle class is disappearing. The American dream is disappearing and we have to fight to keep the middle class vibrant. Rarely do we talk about the impacts of Walmart on the community. They eliminate 2.8 million jobs for every 2 million jobs they create. The average Walmart worker makes $8.80 an hour. … Do we ever talk about the cost to affordable housing and health care because they don’t pay a living wage?” Hueso also talked about the recent scandal involving Walmart in Mexico, where they admitted bribing government officials to obtain a building permit in three years — and compared that to the Sherman Heights store, which was authorized by San Diego in just six months.
“This isn’t just about unions, or quality of life, or saving the middle class,” Hueso said. “This is about what we are as a society. We’re dealing with a company that doesn’t play by the rules, that doesn’t allow their workers to be in unions. We need to make the community aware of the importance of justice and the law.”
Besides Gonzalez, other labor leaders who spoke included her opposite numbers in Los Angeles and Orange Counties, Maria Elena Durazo and Tefere Gebre. Another union leader who spoke at the event was Mickey Kasparian, head of the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 135 in San Diego. His union is in Walmart’s cross-hairs because the success of their non-union “big-box” stores, which sell cheap groceries as well as non-food items, directly threatens the existence of the big supermarket chains like Ralph’s, Vons and Albertson’s, where most of Local 135’s members work.
“We talk a lot about Walmart, but we really should be talking about the community, about workers, about respect,” Kasparian said. “The Walmart workers here deserve a huge round of applause. They want to earn a decent wage with affordable health care, and Walmart tries to take away their wages, benefits and holidays. But they can’t take away their souls and their respect.”
Walmart “Associates” Speak
The Walmart workers Kasparian was talking about were the members of “Organization United for Respect at Walmart,” or “OUR Walmart” for short. They are Walmart employees — or “associates,” a term Walmart coined for its employees to encourage them to feel solidarity with their employers rather than each other, which many other employers have since adopted — who have put their jobs on the line both by speaking publicly about them and organizing an unofficial labor group. OUR Walmart members delivered powerful testimonials about what life is like as a Walmart worker and how Walmart exploits them to keep costs down.
“I’m a warehouse worker [at Walmart in Los Angeles] and it pays $8 an hour,” said a man identified only as Alejandro. “”I am homeless. I don’t have enough money for food. We work with broken equipment. They won’t fix it. We work in unhealthy conditions. It’s 120° in the warehouse and they give us dirty water that isn’t purified. We decided to go on strike because we wanted to make a change. We marched from Irving Park to downtown L.A. , 50 miles, and now we want you to help us fight Walmart.”
“I work in Mountain Park but I live in Fontana, in the Inland Empire, and I drive a Ford Explorer,” said Angie Rodriguez, another Walmart worker. “It takes all my salary just to go to work. … They called me twice last night and asked me to come to San Diego. I hesitated the first time because I baby-sit two grandchildren and I had to ask my daughter’s permission. Eight years ago they started a store like this in my town. They promised us good jobs and hired us full-time. Now we’re only 20 percent full-time and 80 percent part-time, and they’re trying to replace all of us full-timers with part-timers because that way they can get two for the price of one.”
Rodriguez savagely lampooned Walmart’s strategy of calling its workers “associates.” “In a law firm, the ‘associates’ benefit from the profits of the firm,” she explained. “We do not benefit from the profits of Walmart.”
While the morning rally had emphasized elected officials and union leaders, the afternoon speakers’ list was mostly Walmart workers and neighborhood organizers. “We have fought long and hard to show that our community has as much dignity as any other,” said community activist and former City Council candidate Christian Ramirez. “We met with Walmart and they promised a lot of things, but they refused to sign a community benefits agreement. They gave us their word that they would respect the historic character of the building. Look behind you — does that look like they’re respecting the historic character of the building?”
One elected official who did speak at the afternoon rally was Richard Barrera, member of the San Diego Unified School District board of education. “I see this as a big sign of support and unity for our kids who go to school in this neighborhood,” Barrera said. “In this neighborhood, we want partners that understand that if our families have decent jobs and health care, our kids have a shot at getting a real education. When we do a partnership together, we want patrons who create real jobs for our families. We entered into the first Project-Labor Agreement (PLA) of any school district in southern California and hired from this community so the people building our schools can provide for their families and have a real shot at getting ahead.”
Barrera called on community activists to keep the pressure on Walmart and make the Sherman Heights store the first unionized Walmart in the U.S. Ramirez targeted Walmart’s community representative, Pedro Anaya — ironically, an old friend of his — and asked people at the rally to call Anaya at (858) 541-7800, extension 121, to demand that Walmart sign a community benefit agreement with the people of Sherman Heights. But with the Walmart already largely built, neighborhood stores either closing or laying off workers even before Walmart opens, and the lack of a coherent anti-Walmart demand from the rally’s organizers, it was unclear what the various groups involved in the anti-Walmart campaign could do either to stop the store from opening or to get it to hire locally and give its employees good pay and decent working conditions.