It was a cold clear Chicagoland morning with a sharply defined crescent moon hanging above the apartment complex in front of my Oak Park IL home. It was November 29th. Black Friday. A day devoted to mass consumption and mass hysteria in malls and shopping centers across the nation.
I turned on my bicycle flashers and rode down the street to the East Ave CTA Blue Line station. I was headed for the Black Friday protest against Walmart's employment policies. The protest was sponsored by Our Walmart, an employees organization.
The train arrived quickly and within minutes we had crossed Austin Blvd and were speeding through the West Side of the city. I sat in the front car thinking about the relationship between poverty and the education crisis on the West Side of Chicago
I had recently attended 3 meetings in North Lawndale sponsored by several community groups as the largely Black and Latino West Side struggled to recover from a series of school closings.
The Walton family who owns Walmart has poured money into school privatization efforts in Chicago and must be held partly responsible for the 50 schools closed in Chicago last spring.
The Walton Foundation had even organized the hearings where thousands of anguished parents and teachers fought for their schools in front of stony-faced Chicago Public Schools( CPS) representatives who refused to answer any questions.
Poverty is the biggest enemy of education on Chicago's West Side and the low wages paid to retail workers contribute to that poverty. One study concluded that 20% of the workers in the West Side's Austin neighborhood work retail. The low wages paid by Walmart sets the pace for other retailers in a race to the bottom.
The Walton family has the fucking nerve to pretend they "care" about our young people while pushing an educational agenda of rigid scripted curricula, standardized tests, privatization, layoffs and union-busting. Chicago has lost HALF of its African American teachers in recent years.
Walmart? The company who buys many of its products from South Asian sweatshops where workers die in fires and collapsing buildings? Where child labor is widespread? Who could possibly believe that Walmart cares about young people either in Bangladesh or on Chicago's West Side?
I'm supposed to write an article about the West Side education crisis in the coming weeks. I'll make sure to mention how the Walmart effect has helped further destabilize an already distressed working class community.
It's racism. Plain and simple.
I arrived at the Workers United union hall on Ashland and headed for the room where we would hear the plan for the morning. There were already coffee, donuts, bagels and energy bars available. A steady stream of people came in as we chatted amongst ourselves. After about 20 minutes we got our instructions.
We would board three school buses and head first to the Walmart at North and Cicero in the Austin neighborhood.. There a representative would try to deliver a letter asking for a minimum of $25,000 a year for Walmart associates and an end to retaliation. The letter also included the recent NLRB prosecution of Walmart for firing and harassing associates who speak out and protest. Our second destination would be the Walmart on Broadway in the more affluent Lakeview neighborhood.
We boarded our assigned buses and headed out. The organizers had a rather clever plan. One bus would enter the North Ave Walmart parking lot as a diversion and after a few minutes the other two buses would come in a back way. I was on one of the 2 back way buses.
The plan seemed to throw Walmart security into confusion. The main security guy greeted us as we got off our buses by waving his arms and repeatedly saying, "This is private property!"
We pretty much ignored him and walked about the parking lot until we formed up into a picket line inside of their "private property" about a 100 feet from the store. Walmart security permitted us to do that. The store had very little business coming in and out. The organizers then led us down to North Ave, a busy thoroughfare on Chicago's West Side where we could be seen by passing cars.
After picketing there we then boarded our buses to go toward the Lakefront and the Broadway Walmart located in the affluent neighborhood of Lakeview.
I had a wonderful conversation with Alex, a former student of mine, who is an activist in the Caucus of Rank and File Educators (CORE) the group that is now the leadership of the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU).
We had seen each other around but really couldn't place one another. We finally figured it out with the help of mutual friend and played catch up about the last 20 years of our lives. Both Alex and I had become political activists while in college. She is now a special ed teacher in the Chicago Public Schools (CPS).
We arrived at the corner of Broadway and Diversey and formed up to march on the Walmart Express about half a block up Broadway. These Express Walmarts are smaller neighborhood stores which lack the expansive parking lots of the outlying ones.
With about 125-150 of us in front of the store, the already pretty empty Walmart was basically closed down. The police made no effort to force us into a picket line. There were news microphones set up in in a parking space in front of the store.
After chanting and waving signs, the organizers led by Susan Hurley of Jobs with Justice began the press conference. Myron Byrd who is an associate at the Broadway Walmart gave an impassioned speech where he said,
"This is my store, I'm here to take a stand, because to think that Walmart is a good company to work for ... which it is until I saw the retaliation, unjust firings, and no living wage."
Byrd makes about $16,000 a year as a full-time associate. A youth organizer from the community organization IIRON also spoke. She talked about how poverty on the South Side drives people to her food bank because companies like Walmart do not pay a living wage.
A pre-selected group of individuals then walked out on to Broadway and linked arms in an act of civil disobedience. They sang freedom songs while photographers and news cameras surrounded them. Police stood off at a distance for about 15 minutes. The songs were variants of old civil rights songs like,"Before I'd be a Walmart slave, I'd be buried in my grave.Black Friday protest in Chicago: People link arms and block the street in front of a Walmart.
Singing freedom songs at a Black Friday street protest near a Walmart.
I was very moved emotionally by their sincerity. The low wage workers movement is very much a civil rights movement of our time. Finally the cops moved in and twist-tied peoples hands together before leading them off to a couple of police wagons. The arrests all were non-violent and went smoothly.
The short ride back to the union hall gave me a chance to talk to Alex more as we compared notes about our lives as social activists. She remembered the times I'd stand up on my teacher's desk and do some passionate dramatics.
She said that along with two of her college teachers I was among among her favorites. I am always deeply moved when people tell me things like that and never know quite what to say, but thank you.
I had a dynamic high school social studies teacher named Mrs. Steffens who steered me in the direction of social activism. She had been involved with the radical United Electrical Workers union back before the repressive Taft-Hartley law and an organized redbaiting campaign decimated the union in the late 1940's and early 1950's. I hold her in a special place in my memory. The beat goes on...
I caught a ride back to Oak Park with neighbor named Pat and we got a chance to know one another better. I feel like these events are more than protest. They are a way to connect with other human beings in a society where connection is so often seen as just a way to make money. It was a relief to be among passionate people who believe in the power of the working class to develop a system of morals and ethics that can transform this county.
As a life-long socialist, these events have come to have an almost spiritual meaning to me. As a teacher, I was very focused on both the intellectual and the emotional. If humanity is to progress beyond our current state of crisis, we will need both.