Richmond Wal-Mart Fought

Friday December 12, 2003

Some 75 balloon-wielding demonstrators—including a state assemblymember, a mayor, a city councilmember, a county supervisor, and a seven-foot-tall costumed Grinch—staged a candlelight vigil at an entrance to Hilltop Mall in Richmond Wednesday evening, protesting plans by retail giant Wal-Mart to open a store there. 

While the Grinch wandered through the protest waving Plaster of Paris claws and shouting “I love Wal-Mart! Jobs shouldn’t pay!” to a chorus of hearty boos, protesters chanted “Wal-Mart, No! Richmond, Yes!” and “Keep Them Out!” 

The hour-long demonstration was sponsored by the Central Labor Council of Contra Costa County. 

Richmond City Councilmember Charles Belcher told the crowd that he first attended a meeting at Hilltop on the prospective Wal-Mart move some months ago. “I told them I didn’t want Wal-Mart then, I don’t want them now,” Belcher said. “Richmond is a city of pride and purpose. Wal-Mart doesn’t fit here.” 

Contra Costa County Supervisor John Gioia, who led the recent vote on the board of supervisors to ban Wal-Mart from the unincorporated areas of the county, said he was particularly concerned about the retailer’s stand on gun sales. “In New York State, Wal-Mart would not stop the sale of guns to minors, even when they were asked to do so by the local community. We don’t need any more guns in Richmond. We need to demand responsibility from businesses who locate in our city.” 

Richmond Mayor Irma L. Anderson said Wal-Mart officials have already written her office promising not to sell guns in the proposed Richmond store. “We plan to hold them to that.” 

Other short speeches were given by State Assemblymember Loni Hancock and Contra Costa County Central Labor Council Executive Secretary John Dalrymple. 

One demonstrator, a white woman, accused the company of being “slave owners. They pay slave wages to their employees.” 

There is a growing movement in communities throughout the country to discourage Wal-Mart stores from opening in their areas, based on charges that the nation’s largest employer pays low wages, drives out local businesses, shifts the costs of its employee health care to the cities in which it settles, discriminates against women workers, engages in anti-union practices, and exploits overseas sweatshop labor. 

Wal-Mart couldn’t be reached for comment for this article. The company has previously denied such charges in prepared statements, and its website lists such honors as the 2002 Ron Brown Presidential Award (recognizing outstanding achievement in employee relations and community initiatives) and the 2001 and 2002 Billion-Dollar Roundtable Award for spending more than $1 billion with women and minority-owned suppliers. 

The company also says it “require[s] suppliers to ensure that every [overseas] factory conforms to local workplace laws and that there is no illegal child or forced labor.” On the issue of unions, the company says while it “respect[s] the individual rights of our [workers] and encourage them to express their ideas, comments and concerns...we do not believe there is a need for third-party representation.”