This past Thursday night I heard the following story from a man in his mid-twenties who had worked for Walmart in their Duarte, CA store for two years before finding a better paying job elsewhere. While at Walmart he was one of the first members of the workers’ group OUR Walmart. One of the “greeters” at the store, he said, was an elderly woman with bladder control issues. As there were two entrances that needed greeters, one near a bathroom and one not, she had asked several times to be stationed at the entrance closer to the bathroom. The manager consistently refused her request. Eventually she was fired for abandoning her post because she had had to leave to use the bathroom. When she was fired, she broke down and cried because she desperately needed the money.
This story, in short, explains why at the time of the telling I was sitting in a holding cell in Los Angeles’ Metropolitan Detention Center. Fifty four women and men, workers, labor and union activists, and a rabbi (that would be me) were arrested for sitting down in front of the new Walmart store in Chinatown and refusing to move when asked to disperse by officers of the Los Angeles Police Department. We were there to focus attention upon Walmart’s egregious history of paying poverty wages (about 750,000 Walmart workers make less than $25,000 a year), not providing benefits or, alternatively, not giving workers enough hours to qualify for benefits or paying them enough to afford the benefits. On top of all this, and perhaps worse, is Walmart’s mistreatment of its workers as exemplified in the story above. Walmart also has a long history of combatting organizing and retribution firings of workers who protest against the company.
My decision to risk arrest was a decision to stand at the nexus of two traditions of civil disobedience. One stretches back to the Talmud Sage Rabbi Akiva’s decision to teach Torah in public in opposition to the decree of the Roman Empire. He was jailed and ultimately killed for this action. Rabbi Akiva, when challenged about the danger in opposing the Roman regime, articulated a basic principle of civil disobedience. The person who disobeys an immoral law forces the oppressive institution to make a public choice about whether or not they will really stand behind the immoral law with further immoral action. This is the same theory that animated Martin Luther King’s non-violent civil disobedience in the south during the sixties—the second, American tradition of civil disobedience.
Thankfully, on Thursday night, none of us ended up in Parchman Prison or in a Roman garrison on the way to execution. The police officers were all very professional as they hauled us away, and, given the situation, we were treated well. However, the theory is the same. In a situation where it is legal to act immorally, moral people must become outlaws. When it is legal for Walmart to pay their employees minimum wage with minute incremental raises over years— wages so low that the workers are encouraged by Walmart to apply for welfare and food stamps—then moral people are called to break the law to point out this immorality. The point of the public and visible act of being arrested for civil disobedience on the street in front of Walmart is to shine a light on the invisible violence and suffering that Walmart inflicts on its workers in the United States and abroad.
As people of faith, as clergy, we walk with low wage workers in the knowledge that God revealed Godself at Sinai as the God of liberation, the God who demands that we distinguish between slave labor and wage labor. Though the chains at Walmart are not immediately as apparent as at the sweatshops in China where Walmart manufactures a lot of its products, nor as apparent as in situations of human trafficking, the chains are similarly oppressive. The inability to feed one’s family, to pay for shelter, or take pride in one’s work, or be treated with dignity, all serve to destroy a person’s self image—the image of God in which every person was created.
As we chanted while sitting on Cesar Chavez Blvd. (yes, the irony is rich): “This stops now!”
For more information:
PBS’ story about WalMart: Store Wars—when Wal-Mart comes to town