info 05.17.11

On Pins and Needles
Every Person in New York

The Eleanor Roosevelt statue at the 72nd Street entrance to Riverside Park is easily the most conversational sculpture in the city. Through posture and demeanor, artist Penelope Jencks evokes a warm, wise companion who invites confidences. When she ran for president, Hillary Clinton was mocked for her talks with Mrs. R., but we find it impossible to pass by this marvelous statue without at least a brief telepathic chat.

When we saw her recently, it was Mrs. Roosevelt who had something to say, and so we listened. She began by reminding us of her longstanding ties to the Women's Trade Union League and the International Ladies Garment Workers Union, both of which did so much to improve labor conditions in this city and elsewhere.

Woven into this city's very fabric, she admonished us, is the fight for, and commitment to, the rights of workers. "Go back as far as the 1677 carters' strike, remember the 1874 Tompkins Square Riot." (That was a workers rally in the park with over 10,000 participants calling for unemployment relief. It ended with a massacre by police.) "Recall that the first Labor Day parade in 1882, in which 30,000 workers marched, was held in New York. There was the uprising of the 20,000 female shirtwaist makers here in 1909 for better working conditions. Remember your heritage."

It is this heritage that troubled MUG so much about the arrival of Home Depot in 2004. That company has a sorry record of mistreating its workers, as well as its customers. And it's why we are so opposed to the idea of Wal-Mart setting up shop here.

There's nothing wrong, in our view, with large retailers—this city, after all, gave rise to the department store. And it isn't that these behemoths are category killers, pushing out the mom and pops—which they are and which they do, to New York's great detriment. Ultimately, we think the market should decide.

Wal-Mart, though, is the antithesis of everything for which New York has stood and for which it should stand. Consider:

The Arkansas retailer is the defendant in the largest workplace gender discrimination suit in the country's history.

In 2009, the company paid out $17.5 million to settle a class-action lawsuit involving discrimination in hiring African-American truck drivers.

Its record with LGBT workers is poor; among other issues, it denies benefits to same-sex partners.

Two years ago, Wal-Mart agreed to pay out up to $640 million to settle 63 wage and hour class action suits in which the company was charged with shortchanging employees of legitimately earned wages. At the same time, low wages force many Wal-Mart employees to turn to the government for food, housing and other assistance.

There's no doubt that Wal-Mart's prices are low; the issue is how they got that way and at what human cost. The company was fined in 2005 for child labor law violations in the U.S. and, in 2007, 15 of Wal-Mart's Chinese factory suppliers were shown to be little better than sweatshops.

And while they have made some improvements in their health care coverage, the company continues its implacably anti-union stance: this current job posting for Director of Labor Relations lists "support continued union-free workplace" as part of the job description.

Mrs. Roosevelt said at the United Nations in 1953: "Where, after all, do universal human rights begin? In small places, close to home…the factory, farm or office where he works…unless these rights have meaning there, they have little meaning anywhere."

Would Mrs. Roosevelt, born in New York, think Wal-Mart a fit employer for our city? We think not. We believe she would counsel us that we must sometimes vote our principles over our pocketbook.

The retailer continues to try and bully its way into the five boroughs and they will prevail if the opposition isn't fierce, and loud, and very public. Support Wal-Mart Free NYC and Walmart Watch in their efforts. And let Wal-Mart know what you think of them.

Tell them Mrs. Roosevelt sent you.

Jason Polan started Every Person in New York in March of 2008. He plans on working on the project until it is finished. Look for Every Person in New York on Tuesdays in MUG and daily at Jason's site.

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