SPRINGFIELD, Va. — “How may I help you?”
Leave it to Wal-Mart: When a crowd of 125 protesters showed up in front of its store here Thursday to demand that the retail giant change its business practices, the store sent out a greeter in a blue vest blazoned with that phrase to meet them.
According to his name tag, the retail Goliath’s emissary’s name was David.
The man, who didn’t give his last name, agreed to meet with the leaders of a crowd of labor activists, including Doug Dority, president of the United Food & Commercial Workers union, which has been trying to organize the workers at Wal-Mart Stores Inc. for a few years.
The Springfield demonstration was just one of about 100 around the country, conducted at stores from Alabama to Washington State, as part of what activists called a “National Day of Action” against the company.
“We can’t allow the largest employer in the U.S. to pay poverty wages and exploit its workers and claim it has a decent reputation,” said Bill Lucy, secretary/treasurer of the American Federation of State, Country and Municipal Employees union, an AFL-CIO affiliate, who attended the rally.
The protesters were members of the ad-hoc People’s Campaign for Justice at Wal-Mart, which Thursday presented a six-point platform of demands that the Bentonville, Ark.-based retailer change business practices they claim are endangering the future of the American middle class.
They’re singling out the chain in part because of its size. With over 1 million U.S. workers, Wal-Mart is the second-largest domestic employer, after the federal government. The activists argue that Wal-Mart’s proven ability to dominate most categories of retail it tries forces competitors to cut wages and take other steps dangerous to workers and customers to compete with the chain.
The coalition of 38 groups is spearheaded by the AFL-CIO, including the member organization UFCW, which has been working unsuccessfully to organize workers at Wal-Mart stores.
A Wal-Mart spokeswoman argued that the firm treats its workers fairly and pays them well.
“We do a lot to lower prices for people around the world and we are pretty comfortable that our customers and associates will see through this activity and keep it in perspective,” she said.
Dority, along with Jim Lowthers, head of the local UFCW, spoke briefly with the greeter and presented him with an oversized card bearing the code of conduct. They asked him to sign the card.
While the two union executives spoke with him, members of the Fairfax County police department herded the rest of the loud crowd back from the store’s front door, across the parking lot and to a sidewalk about 50 yards from the entrance.
When Dority returned to the crowd, he said the greeter had not signed the code, but had agreed to bring it back to Bentonville. Dority expressed little hope that would mean much, saying: “They probably won’t sign.”