Police in Los Angeles have arrested 54 people among more than 200 who were protesting outside Walmart's newly opened Chinatown store against the company’s treatment of employees.
Authorities said the demonstration Thursday evening was peaceful, but they declared it an unlawful assembly when many of the protesters sat in a circle that blocked the street and then refused to disperse.
The store, which opened in September, has spurred protests since its planning stages. Most have been carried out by labor groups criticizing the company's employment practices, with accusations of low pay, arbitrary cuts in hours and alleged retaliation for speaking out against the company.
"Walmart impacts us all — if the workers don't speak up, then who will?" Walmart worker Anthony Goytia asked on Thursday ahead of the demonstration in Los Angeles County, where Walmart says it has more than 13,000 employees.
Elizabeth Brennan, with the labor group Warehouse Workers United, told Al Jazeera on Friday that about 100 of the protesters were Walmart workers, and that five Walmart workers were among the people arrested. However, none of those involved in Thursday's protest work at the Chinatown store. Many of the other protesters were activists and other supporters of the employees’ cause.
Walmart spokesman Kory Lundberg told Al Jazeera on Friday: "The reason you see so few, if any, Walmart associates participating in these events is because they understand Walmart offers more opportunities for advancement than other companies in America." The company routinely refers to employees as “associates.”
Walmart has contended on numerous occasions that protesting workers are not representative of the vast majority of its hourly employees.
But while Walmart says more than 475,000 of its 1 million employees in the U.S. earn more than $25,000 a year, hundreds of thousands of others make less than that, and many say the income is not enough to support their families.
"As a husband and father, nothing (is) more important that being able to provide for my family. I need to be able to take care of my family," Goytia said Thursday.
Among the Walmart workers arrested on Thursday was Richard Reynoso, who has worked at the company for about a year and a half.
"I got arrested today because I believe that taking this step will encourage others to be brave and step forward and stand up to the world's largest retailer," said Reynoso, an overnight stocker at the Walmart store in Duarte, Calif. "Walmart can't silence me."
The United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW)-backed group OUR Walmart, which organized the protest, said those arrested also included clergy and community members.
The protest is the latest in a number of similar nationwide events this year. Protests also took place at other stores in the Los Angeles area on Wednesday.
Organizers from OUR Walmart have said their most recent actions were a precursor to other planned events leading up to Black Friday — the day after Thanksgiving, when many retailers offer major discounts and sales ahead of Christmas.
"More workers will be taking action across the country," Brennan said.
With The Associated Press