Wal-Mart meets Raging Grannies
Sunday, February 08, 2004
By Teresa F. Lindeman, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
The Raging Grannies came, they sang, and they left seeming a bit relieved that their first confrontational protest had gone so smoothly.
In a bit role in what was meant to be a cross-country demonstration, four representatives of the Pittsburgh chapter of the singing female activist group stood in front of the Wal-Mart store at the Waterworks shopping center yesterday and belted out their latest hits.
Customers pushing full carts and holding shopping bags politely accepted anti-Wal-Mart fliers and listened curiously to lyrics such as "Wal-Mart sucks the life out of towns" and "Nobody's wages need to Wal-Mart-ize."
The Wal-Mart employee who talked with the women as they stood by the entrance didn't seem overly excited. "He was very nice," said Carol Rosenberger, a North Hills resident and member of the Raging Grannies.
The group, which traces its roots to a Canadian organization begun in the late 1980s, reached Pittsburgh a little more than a year ago and has spent much of its time here on peace and justice issues. Members are generally over 50 years old -- one of yesterday's singers just celebrated 80. They have to be willing to wear attention-getting hats and to sing.
Chapters in California, where the weather may be better in February, came up with the idea of simultaneously hitting several Wal-Marts around the country. After a flurry of e-mails, the Pittsburgh group decided to go for it even though most of their 20 members couldn't make it.
Why Wal-Mart now? "We've been hearing about Wal-Mart," said Rosenberger, "It's been hitting the news."
It has been a rough several months for the planet's largest retailer. In October, federal officials raided 60 stores and charged people working as janitors for subcontractors with being illegal immigrants.
The company is fighting numerous cases claiming sex discrimination and wage violations, and recently won dismissal of a complaint in Las Vegas.
As businesses such as Levi Strauss & Co. close North American plants, some blame Wal-Mart's insistence on its vendors cutting prices for the shutdowns.
But the retailer on Fortune magazine's most admired list has long denied charges it uses unfair labor practices or sweatshop-made goods. In recent news reports, officials have been quoted as planning to take a more aggressive public relations stance.
"Because of our size, we are often the target of criticism by special interest groups," said Wal-Mart spokeswoman Karen Burk yesterday. "We take all criticism seriously."
Dana Reinke knows all about Wal-Mart's role as the current corporate Goliath and how it has become the focus for those concerned about such issues as urban sprawl and dying main street business districts.
Reinke is working on her Ph.D. in the University of Pittsburgh's sociology department and she's studying Wal-Mart as part of an examination of how communities politicize the shopping experience. She heard about the protest and came to take pictures and notes.
Fox Chapel resident Sharon Deacon, on the other hand, had no idea who the Raging Grannies were and why they were singing as she exited the store with snow supplies in hand. After she learned their concerns, Deacon thought a moment.
"I probably agree with them, but I think it's not just Wal-Mart," she said. "Americans want low prices and, for now anyway, the big chains seem to be giving people what they want ..."