“I’m thinkin’ ’bout burnin’ the Walmart down,” Steve Earle sings in a video uploaded to his website this week. During the clip, the songwriter urges fans to attend Saturday’s March Against Low Wage Jobs in Los Angeles, a rally expected to unite some 10,000 protestors against Walmart’s planned construction of California’s first neighborhood market store.
The incendiary lyric from “Burnin’ It Down” – one of 12 songs Earle is recording in Nashville for his tentatively titled The Low Highway, due early next year – reflects the short fuses of those workers disenchanted with the retail giant’s handling of employee pay, health benefits and lack of unions. While Earle will not attend the march because of his recording schedule back east, Tom Morello, L.A.-based band No Age, and composer Clifford Tasner of the Billionaires will perform. Ben Harper will sing one song with Morello, organizers with the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor confirmed Friday.
“Walmart insures more than 1 million people in the U.S., and our health plans exceed the requirement of the reform law passed in 2010,” Walmart’s corporate website says. The company, which topped the Fortune 500 in 2011, employs 2 million workers at more than 10,000 stores worldwide, and did $443.9 billion in sales as of January, according to their own figures. Their employees in Hawaii make the most per hour on average ($14.51), while those in Oklahoma collect the lowest wage ($11.68).
In California, Walmart’s full-time hourly employees are paid an average of $12.79 – higher than the state’s minimum wage of $8.00 an hour, but barely enough to cover the insulin medication deli department manager Venanzi Luna regularly buys for her ailing parents, with whom she lives.
“It costs us more money to have insurance with Walmart than for us to be on Medicare,” Luna, 34, told Rolling Stone. “Every day is a battle with them.”
Now six years into her employment at the Pico Rivera, California store, Luna supervises 20 employees, half of whom are not entitled to full-time pay and benefits. She says she has fought upper management for cutting her associates’ hours and penalizing them when it comes to taking sick leave.
Luna’s involvement with the Organization United for Respect at Walmart (OUR Walmart), an independent group of former and current associates, inspired her to draft an online petition demanding the resignations of CEO Mike Duke and board chairman Rob Walton. Earlier this month, she took a box containing 17,000 signatures to Walmart’s annual shareholders meeting. “I believe Walmart can be better,” she pleaded during her tearful presentation. “Your management needs training.” The shareholders voted to re-elect Duke and Walton.
Earlier this year, Los Angeles city leaders voted unanimously to ban large chain stores, but not before Walmart filed the necessary papers to move forward with its Chinatown location.
“What we’re finding is that the more people learn facts about Walmart – as opposed to urban myths – the more they see the value in having a store in their community. That’s why the overwhelming majority of folks who live in the surrounding area of our planned Chinatown Walmart Neighborhood Market look forward to the store opening next year,” Steven Restivo, Walmart’s senior director of community affairs, told Rolling Stone in an email statement. He added that Walmart’s “wages and benefits typically meet or exceed those of the majority of our competitors, including union competitors”; pay raises “tend to be higher than the retail industry average”; and “our health care coverage remains in the top tier for retail.”
“I just think Walmart could be particularly damaging in a neighborhood like that,” Earle said. “There are neighborhoods that literally are their personality, and their livelihood depends on mom-and-pop businesses. Walmart sells everything. And when somebody comes in and they sell everything, what’s left?”
Though he hasn’t set foot inside a Walmart since he bought a Christmas tree there in 2004, Earle can still be found in the store’s electronics section; the big-box retailer carries several of his albums, including last year’s I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive, to the delight of his label, the independent New West Records.
“I let ’em be excited about it, ’cause by that time I’d already written ‘Burnin’ It Down,'” Earle said, laughing. “So that sort of takes care of me being in Walmart for the next record.”
The March Against Low Wage Jobs begins on Saturday at 10 a.m. at the Los Angeles State Historic Park.