Last week a Superior Court judge dismissed a final attempt by community groups to score a victory against the Walmart grocery market that opened in Chinatown last year. The groups’ complaint against Walmart brings up a number of factors that undermine the validity of the Chinatown store’s permits. These include zoning and redevelopment requirements that have not been met, poor record keeping by the City, the lack of current California Environmental Quality Act information about the neighborhood, and the fact that the permits were issued the day before a City Council hearing that could have halted the project.
Walmart has long occupied center stage in the national debate about income inequality because of its low wage jobs and ruthless ability to undercut small local businesses. How, then, did the retail giant plant a 33,000-square-foot flag in the middle of Los Angeles’ urban core, despite long-established safeguards designed to protect the unique neighborhood character of places like Chinatown?
Walmart’s 1.3 million workers won a big victory Monday when the National Labor Relations Board ruled that the retail giant had broken the law by firing and harassing employees who spoke out—and in some cases went on strike—to protest the company’s poverty pay and abusive labor practices.
The federal agency will prosecute Walmart’s illegal firings and disciplinary actions involving more than 117 workers, including those who went on strike last June as part of a growing movement of company employees. The ruling is likely to accelerate the burgeoning protest movement among Walmart employees, upset with low pay, stingy benefits, arbitrary work schedules and part-time jobs.
Over the past year, protests against the world’s largest private employer have escalated, led by OUR Walmart, a nationwide network of Walmart workers. Last fall, the group announced that it would hold rallies outside Walmart stores in dozens of cities on the day after Thanksgiving—the busiest shopping day of the year,
On Sunday, November 3, the Los Angeles Times ran a 429-word story, “Wal-Mart kicks off Christmas way early, helping to kill Black Friday,” on the retail giant’s plan to entice customers to do their Christmas shopping early by marking down prices weeks before the traditional day-after-Thanksgiving bargains. Providing Walmart with tens of thousands of dollars of free advertising, the story reported that “Deals include 36 percent savings on a JVC 42-inch LED television and 51 percent savings on a 10-inch Xelio tablet — at $299 for the TV and $49 for the tablet, those are the lowest tags Wal-Mart has ever put on those products.” Surely this is the kind of “news” that a Walmart PR executive drools over.
In contrast, the Times’ coverage of last Thursday’s anti-Walmart protest — one of the largest local civil disobedience actions in the company’s history — garnered a puny 163-word story,
Apparently Walmart, the country’s largest — and, some say, stingiest — private employer thought its troubles at the new Chinatown grocery center were over once it opened for business in September. That, however, was corporate wishful thinking in serious need of a cleanup in aisle three. Today, November 7, the community coalition that opposed Walmart’s original entry into the historic neighborhood will be demonstrating against the mega-chain’s continued abuse of its low-paid employees. The event will culminate with the arrest of 100 men and women in front of the store.
Their immediate goal is to draw attention to Walmart’s strategy of maximizing profits by scheduling its workers for the minimum number of hours possible and by encouraging them to apply for food stamps and other tax-funded programs to supplement their meager paychecks. (Not to mention firing dissident workers.) But organizers also hope to build momentum for nationwide protests against Walmart scheduled to take place in three weeks.
Today Walmart opened its newest supermarket, a 33,000-square-foot “grocery store” on the Chinatown corner of Cesar Chavez and Grand avenues. It’s a stone’s throw from Our Lady of the Angels’ stained-glass windows and within shouting distance of dozens of small local businesses now threatened with extinction. Local community groups had fought Walmart’s arrival as a corporate intrusion into the historic neighborhood – the store represents the retail giant’s deepest penetration into urban Los Angeles yet.
For now the new store’s critics and business competitors await the worst.
“It’s just sad for a small economy like Chinatown’s to have a large national chain whose money is going out of state and not staying in the community,” says Steven Y. Wong, interim executive director of Los Angeles’ Chinese American Museum. Wong, who says that his comments are his private opinions and not those of the museum, adds that the store “drastically changes the character of the neighborhood and will have a long-term,
September’s shaping up to be another tough month for Martha Sellers. The Walmart cashier cleared $732 on her last twice-monthly paycheck but hasn’t paid this month’s $700 rent on her place in Bellflower. When she does, she’ll have to decide how much of the remaining $32 will be divided between food and gas to get her to the job she’s held for the past 10 years.
“I am just always broke, always late on things,” Sellers says. “Thank goodness I have a nice landlord who understands.”
Sellers’ employer, however, is not so understanding. Sellers makes $13 an hour, which on paper doesn’t look too bad when compared to many other Walmart workers’ salaries, which tend to run less than $9 an hour. The problem is that the retail giant is continually cutting her hours, so that the $13 doesn’t tell the whole story.
“When I first started I worked 35,
My friend Allison is a United Methodist minister. Her husband, Andy, pastors a United Church of Christ congregation. Both serve churches in Pasadena. Both of them have been involved in advocacy for the workers at Walmart.
Allison’s father, Alan, is also a United Methodist minister and an old friend of mine who lives in Honolulu, where he took the lead to start a faith-based advocacy organization that has made a strong impact on the city. So Alan has earned some progressive credibility. Andy told me that the last time he visited his in-laws in Honolulu, Alan and he were on their way back home from a golfing excursion, when Alan announced he was going “to pick up a few things at Walmart.”
Andy was aghast and said, “You shop at Walmart?”
“Well, of course I do,” said Alan, “And don’t tell me that Allison doesn’t!”
“No, she never shops there!”
“Really?” said Alan.
Tomorrow the fate of Chinatown residents and small businesses will be decided by the Superior Court. For the past 18 months, Chinatown residents and community activists across the city have been fighting Walmart’s attempt to open a grocery store in the historic downtown neighborhood. Now a judge will weigh the right of Asian-American communities to have a voice in what is built in their neighborhoods versus a multinational corporation’s ability to open just one more store. The lawsuit filed by the Asian Pacific American Labor Alliance (APALA) and its allies seeks to nullify the building permits granted to Walmart by L.A. city officials.
As we at APALA prepare for the trial, I have been reflecting on our civil rights and labor struggles in the Asian-American community. It’s the same battle that Chinatown residents fought against Union Station displacement and that Japanese Americans fought to reclaim Little Tokyo in the wake of internment camps and recent gentrification.
Walmart might have viewed their plans to open in an existing building in Los Angeles Chinatown as a bullet-proof strategy. The retail giant would open its new store in the Grand Plaza, an existing building, that unlike new construction, would allow the retailer to proceed without a public hearing.
As the company worked on its renovation plans, which started last year, Aiha Nguyen at the Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy (LAANE) and community members dug through reams of city documents.
They realized the retailer and city officials needed something central to the democratic process — a public hearing for neighborhood residents to provide feedback about the store in the Grand Plaza building.
The Grand Plaza had received about $7 million in subsidies years ago, Nguyen said, adding that a hearing and environmental requirements from a city-approved Chinatown Redevelopment Plan still apply to any new tenant.
That requirement is serving as the basis for the April 4 lawsuit that could block Walmart from opening in 30,000 square feet of space in the downtown area.
The Asian Pacific American Labor Alliance (APALA), the Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy (LAANE) and other community groups took legal action against the proposed Chinatown Walmart today by filing a lawsuit against the City of Los Angeles. The lawsuit challenges the process by which the building permits were issued.
The plaintiffs allege that the Department of Building and Safety violated city and state laws which require public approval of the permits by the Community Redevelopment Agency/LA board. Eighty Chinatown residents, Walmart workers and community activists rallied the same day to adopt principles for all development in Chinatown and demand that the community’s voice be heard.
The Asian Pacific American Labor Alliance, with the support of LAANE and Chinatown small businesses, filed multiple appeals against the permits when the store was first proposed in February 2012. The appeals asserted that the permits received inadequate review and were erroneously issued,
Last year, Walmart gave $918,000 through its foundation to 33 California nonprofits. Amongst the types of organizations: job training, homeless shelters and health groups (see list below).
I scratched my head when I read this. Of course we want to see vital social service groups impacted by severe government funding cuts survive in this economy. Many of us have attended fundraisers for, or donated to these groups ourselves.
But there was something about the nature of the groups that caught my eye. I wondered: Why is Walmart funding groups that provide for such basic needs? Why is a corporation suddenly funding healthcare groups? Altruism? A love for Obamacare? Or is there something else?
Here’s what strikes me about Walmart’s seemingly benign charity efforts: The type of groups they’re funding addresses basic needs (jobs, health, shelter) that good jobs actually fulfill. Walmart, of course, is notorious for not providing such jobs.
Today The New York Times dropped the other shoe of its investigation into charges of Walmart bribery in Mexico. In some important ways, that second shoe is going to sound even louder than the first. This past April The Times reported how, in 2004, a former Walmart employee became a whistleblower and informed the retail giant’s top brass that systemic bribery had been Walmart de Mexico’s default mode when it came to obtaining building permits and other forms of government cooperation. The executives in Bentonville, Arkansas ordered an internal investigation – but cut it short after the whistleblower’s charges were proved true.
Now The Times’ own investigation, which picked up where Walmart’s was unceremoniously canceled, reveals how the company showered bribes on Mexican officials to overcome zoning prohibitions against building a Walmart supermarket close to that country’s cherished pyramids at Teotihuacán.
Remember the spring and summer of 2011, when the Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy (LAANE) was mysteriously tracked by MB Public Affairs? Beginning in May, 2011, this right-wing “political ops firm,” led by Karl Rove operative Mark Bogetich, launched a massive investigation into LAANE, requesting thousands of documents from virtually every elected or appointed official in L.A. County. With lots of public support, LAANE fought back and, after several months of press releases, petitions, blog posts and other “reveal thyself” exhortations to MB’s secret funder, the inquiry suddenly stopped. According to City Hall insiders at the time, MB’s requested documents were left uncollected and LAANE activists and supporters were left wondering who would possibly have wanted to spend an estimated $50,000 to find dirt on a nonprofit advocacy group that makes no secret about what it stands for.
Over the past year, the mystery of the secret investigation has continued to puzzle us.
Two weeks out from the presidential election, you may not have the epic battle between L.A.’s Chinatown community and Walmart foremost in mind. But this high-stakes conflict is nothing if not riveting, with all the twists and turns of a modern-day Chandler novel.
If you haven’t been paying attention the last few months, here’s a quick cheat sheet: In February Frying Pan News broke the story that Walmart was planning to open its first-ever Los Angeles grocery store in historic Chinatown. The prospect of the world’s largest retailer setting up shop in a neighborhood famous for its homegrown stores and restaurants prompted residents, business owners and activists to seek a temporary ban on chain stores in the area. Just as the City Council was poised to pass the ban, Walmart mysteriously – some would say suspiciously, in the wake of the corporation’s stunning Mexican bribing scandal – secured building permits for its Chinatown location the night before the Council vote.
Many of you have been following LAANE and its partners’ effort to protect Chinatown from Walmart, which is pursuing a strategy to get into urban areas across the country including Boston, New York, Washington, DC and Chicago. Over the last six months, thousands of people in L.A. have marched against Walmart, community groups have appealed their building permits and a moratorium on large chain stores in Chinatown is pending. Across the nation, Walmart workers have organized creative actions against Bentonville shareholders and community groups have launched rallies and even flash mobs to hold the retailer accountable.
Yet many here in L.A. fear it is not enough to stop Walmart. After all, Walmart was able to get its building permits issued by a department known for moving slower than a glacier less than 24 hours before a looming moratorium. And why did they need those expedited permits—was it really that urgent to begin construction on a Walmart store in a space that had been vacant for 20 years?
(The following post first appeared on Salon. Author Josh Eidelson discusses Girshriela Green, who was fired after speaking out against bad working conditions at Walmart during the massive June 30 march and rally held in L.A.’s Chinatown. The Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy stands with OUR Walmart workers and actively encourages all members to call Walmart’s VP of Public Relations TODAY at 479-277-9350 to demand justice for Girshriela and her fellow workers and to reinstate her.)
As Wal-Mart celebrates its 50th anniversary this summer, it has faced a new wave of resistance from its “associates” — the company’s corporate-speak for employees. Last month, a delegation of Wal-Mart workers brought their grievances to the company’s shareholder meeting, including low wages and understaffing. In interviews yesterday, three workers at the forefront of the campaign told Salon the company has punished them for their activism. Critics say that the world’s largest private sector employer is playing dirty once again.
On June 30, I rode a bus from near the South Los Angeles site of Walmart to the Cornfield – the starting point for the largest rally ever held against the retail giant. It was on this bus packed with African American community activists that I came to fully understand why, as an African American pastor, I have for the last 10 years refused to shop at Walmart.
There has long been a debate in the community about whether low-income African Americans should shop at Walmart. Some people say that Walmart helps those who are struggling economically because they keep their prices low.
The truth is that Walmart is the leader at operating in its own best interest. And that interest – as we see with the enormous wealth of the Walton family – is to make as much money as possible.
There are several reasons why people who depend on the low prices and availability of Walmart should stop shopping there.
If you’ve been following media coverage of the battle over Walmart’s proposed store in Chinatown, you probably have the impression that the fight is between the retail giant and labor. Chinatown leaders have been largely absent from press reports of the controversy, and to the extent they are mentioned one would think they want Walmart in their neighborhood.
Thursday’s hearing at the L.A. City Planning Commission should set the record straight — Chinatown doesn’t want Walmart, and residents and business owners are loud and clear about it for anyone who is paying attention.
The hearing was on the proposed Interim Control Ordinance (ICO) for Chinatown, which would temporarily stop chain stores over 20,000 square feet from opening in that community. By a vote of 14 to 0 the Council directed the Planning Department to draft the ordinance back in March, but staff dragged its feet for more than three months.
On July 3 the Asian Pacific American Labor Alliance (APALA) and United Food and Commercial Workers Local 770 filed a lawsuit challenging the City of Los Angeles’ handling of Walmart’s controversial Chinatown store project.
The suit alleges that the L.A. City Department of Building and Safety failed to notify the public of its decision to issue a Notice of Exemption (NOE), which allows Walmart to move forward on its Chinatown project without environmental review. The lawsuit also asks a judge to stop construction at the store.
The plaintiffs in the lawsuit are asking a judge to find the exemption invalid and require that a new one be issued. Because the building permits are being appealed – an initial hearing is expected in August – the lawsuit argues that the exemption should not have been issued until the appeal process was exhausted.
The notice to the public of the exemption is intended to prevent the appearance of backroom deals.
Nearly all employers struggle to contain health care costs. Walmart, however, has long made it part of its business model to externalize those costs. The World’s Biggest Company has repeatedly come under fire from labor and community groups, as well as states, for promoting a health care structure that encouraged employee reliance on Medicaid. The Supreme Court’s June 28 decision upheld the heart of the Affordable Care Act, which was good for President Obama–and also good for Walmart.
“The ‘Obamacare’ plan is a huge subsidy to Walmart,” Nelson Lichtenstein, author of The Retail Revolution: How Walmart Created a Brave New World of Business said in a phone interview. The Affordable Care Act will also benefit the bottom rung of Walmart’s workforce who will be eligible for Medicare under the plan, he added.
Lichtenstein refers to Walmart’s army of part-timers. The retailer’s Web site features a state-by-state report of its average hourly rate for full-time regular employees and makes much of the figures—but the pay scale numbers don’t apply to large numbers of Walmart associates (and are disputed by advocates who use industry research to place the pay scales at a lower rate.)
USA Today reports that Walmart declined to say what the retailer’s national hourly wage is for part-time workers.