LOS ANGELES – The modern-day story of David and Goliath is playing out in cities and towns across America, and last night, on Cesar Chavez Avenue, one of the story’s scenes took place when Walmart workers staged a nonviolent civil disobedience action in front the retail giant’s “mini” store here.
Two to three thousand Angelenos came out to protest, and to support the 50 people who committed to be arrested for obstructing the road in a peaceful sit-down in front of the store. This was one of many actions that have taken place across the country, calling attention to Walmart‘s well-known poverty wages and oppressive working conditions.
Subcontract workers, not officially in Walmart’s employ but completely subject to the corporation’s anti-worker policies, and who work in warehouses in over 100-degree temperatures for close to minimum wage, have been part of this movement for dignity.
Walmart recently made a startling public admission, announcing that only one-quarter of its employees earned upwards of $25K a year! -and thereby affirming that for 75 percent of its workforce, the wages earned are so low that many of them are forced to apply for food stamps or Medicaid.
The Nov. 7 action had been long planned and coordinated between the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor and the city’s police department. The police are also union members represented by that same county federation. When they strode onto the street-uniformed, helmeted, carrying billy clubs and teargas guns-to surround the demonstrators, several of them raised their fists in the same solidarity salute the crowd, and those about to be arrested, had also displayed. Like the Roman soldiers in a Sunday school Easter Passion Play, these police knew the role they had been assigned to perform, and did it smoothly, professionally, and without personal malice.
One by one, the protesters were handcuffed and led away, to the supportive chants and cheers of the crowd, escorted to a waiting bus, brought to a nearby downtown detention center. There, they were booked, fingerprinted and released on their own recognizance in the early morning hours. Gathered afterward at the county AFL-CIO headquarters, they collectively turned in their notices to appear in court.
It remains to be seen if there will be fines or convictions.
The spirit of the rally was upbeat and optimistic. “The main product that Walmart sells is poverty,” said federation leader Maria Elena Durazo. “We will not go away! You are not getting rid of us!”
Anthony Boitia, a Walmart worker and family man, said he can’t make ends meet on a low-wage job. “We’re not afraid to speak up. It’s not a labor movement if we don’t move!” he said.
Clergy and Laity United for Economic Justice members blessed the demonstrators, while the group’s director, Rabbi Aryeh Cohen, a professor the University of Judaism rabbinical school, was among those arrested.
The demonstration occurred two days after the Nov. 5 elections, in which progressives, many with strong union affiliations, got elected. A new mood of militancy may be in the air for the kind of labor-community alliance the recent AFL-CIO convention in Los Angeles has called for.
Photo: PW/Eric A. Gordon