By Jeremy B. White
An hour before Thursday’s City Council hearing on the impact of Walmart’s potential move to Brooklyn, the store’s opponents were ready. By noon, a raucous crowd already stretched from the doors of the Emigrant Bank Building to the corner of Elk Street, their enthusiasm unaffected by the frigid weather.
Walmart’s plans to open a new store in East New York has drawn criticism from elected officials, advocates and union leaders who predict the store will supplant local businesses in return for less than desirable jobs. Walmart declined to attend the hearing, defending their decision in a letter that touted the company’s low prices, its philanthropy and its ability to generate jobs.
If anything, the store’s decision energized detractors who saw Walmart’s absence as a clear sign of a corporation’s indifference. In energy and in tone, the line to get in to the hearing seemed like a continuation of a morning rally at which Council Speaker Christine Quinn and Public Advocate Bill de Blasio denounced the store.
Protestors waved red and blue placards listing the numbers of local United Food and Commercial Workers shops alongside signs declaring “Walmart: The Worst Employer In America” and banners for New York Communities for Change, an important supporter of the Walmart Free NYC campaign. Chants of “Wal Mart No!” and “Si Se Puede!” echoed through the street. At the back of the line, a set of speakers pumped out music from their spot in a small wooden box affixed to a rusted red bicycle.
A little after 2 p.m., after security had begun intermittently letting people in line into the building, a man with a megaphone emerged and told those who remained that they had reached capacity. Some people groaned and dispersed, but a tenacious few continued to wait.
One of them, Rose Durante, left work early to attend the hearing. She has worked at the Pathmark in Borough Park for 12 years, and she worried that her job would be displaced.
“Some of [my coworkers] don’t understand the meaning of Walmart coming in here,” Durante said. “They think it will be great for them to shop, they don’t understand they’ll lose their jobs. Who would want to go to a grocery store when they can get clothes and groceries in one shopping trip?”
Resistance to the Walmart has focused not just on what critics charge is a pattern of monopolizing business from local stores but on the quality of the employment it offers, both in terms of low pay and its widely criticized record of failing to promote women and minorities. De Blasio’s office recently released a study encapsulating these reservations, which Walmart promptly rejected.
For its part, in its letter to the City Council, Walmart rebutted these criticisms, insisting that “across the country, Walmart co-exists with small, medium and large businesses,” and adding that “Walmart creates jobs that provide a competitive wage, affordable benefits and the chance to build a career.” The letter suggested that the council study the impact of chains like TJ Maxx and Best Buy that have already opened stores in New York before “embarking on a hypothetical exercise” examining the potential effects of a Brooklyn Walmart.
By 2:30 p.m. Umar Jordan stood in the back of what remained of the line, dressed in a tan and white fur coat that swept down to his ankles. Jordan, 56, a community organizer in Brownsville, East New York and Bedford Stuyvesant, said he came on behalf of people who were concerned about “what type of asset Walmart will mean to the community.”
“These are mediocre jobs, these are minimum wage jobs,” Jordan said, pausing to wave to the wife of Charles Barron, the councilman representing East New York, as she entered the building. “You’re telling us that you’re bringing jobs and that’s a good thing, I commend them on that, but they’re jobs where you’re living from paycheck to paycheck.”