Opponents of Wal-Mart Stores Inc.'s push into New York City greeted the company's chief executive, Michael Duke, Wednesday morning with smiles—but not of the welcoming variety.
Dozens of boisterous protesters rallied outside a Wall Street Journal executive breakfast featuring Mr. Duke at the Bryant Park Grill, and attendees held up yellow Walmart smiley face masks, sang, danced and chanted. A woman on stilts in a tuxedo with a “Mr. Walmart” sign around her neck and a man dressed as the Statue of Liberty in drag batted an oversized stuffed big red apple in the air.
The group arrived about halfway into Mr. Duke's hourlong discussion with Journal Deputy Managing Editor Alan Murray, just as the two were discussing the massive sex discrimination lawsuit facing the company. The protesters, from the labor-backed Walmart Free NYC coalition [which includes members of Make the Road New York], gathered outside the restaurant's full-length glass windows and chanted, “Walmart cheats, Walmart hates, Walmart discriminates.”
A marching band, complete with drums, clarinets, trombones and trumpets belted out a song to the tune of Jean Knight's "Mr. Big Stuff." “Mr. Walmart/Who do you think you are? Mr. Walmart/You're never gonna get my love.”
A Walmart spokesman called the protests “a publicity stunt” designed to take attention away from Walmart's efforts to bring jobs and fresh groceries to New York City by opening its first stores here.
“You know your message is falling on deaf ears when you have to resort to trombones and noisemakers over substance and facts,” he said.
The forum went on without a hitch, though guests had to strain to hear beyond the din of the protest, as Mr. Duke discussed such topics as the sex discrimination suit, the importance of boosting the retailer's flagging same-store sales, Walmart's growth in China and the economic pressures facing its customers.
A stilt-walker joined the Walmart protest Wednesday. Mr. Duke barely addressed the retailer's plans to enter New York, telling the audience that he hoped to come back to town when he had something to announce. The company is scouring the city for sites, focusing on outer-borough locations where fresh food and jobs are in short supply and the retail giant would not need City Council's approval.
On the class action suit, Mr. Duke said that the accusations weren't “representative” of the way women are treated at the company. “Walmart has had for years strong policies that prohibit discrimination,” he said. He also defended the company's labor practices, saying that 70% of the company's managers started out as associates. “Walmart jobs are good jobs,” he said.
The theatrical rally, which lasted about 30 minutes, was the second such event organized recently by Walmart Free NYC, which is a coalition of labor, community and small business groups spearheaded by the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union and the United Food and Commercial Workers. Earlier this month, a similar group of musicians and dancers targeted the Columbus Circle headquarters of The Related Cos., which has had talks with Walmart about leasing space at its Gateway II mall in East New York, Brooklyn.
As the forum wound down, Mr. Murray, the Journal editor, said to Mr. Duke, “Mike, I hope you appreciate this rousing welcome to New York.”
As executives got up to leave, one said to his tablemates, “I don't think I've ever been as entertained at one of these breakfasts.”
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