Communities Are Worth Fighting For

Randi Storch
Randi Storch is a professor of history at the State University of New York, in Cortland. She received her PhD in 1998 at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
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Last month in Washington, D.C. Mayor Vincent C. Gray vetoed the Large Retailer Accountability Act, which would have required corporate retailers with sales of $1 billion or more that operated businesses of at least 750,000 square feet in the District to pay a “living wage.” In Washington, D.C. that means that workers in places like Walmart would earn $12.50 an hour.  Mayor Gray argued that the law would hurt District residents by depriving them access to less expensive goods and jobs. He also made the argument, reminiscent of those made by Chambers of Commerce in struggling communities across the country, that paying a living wage would discourage future economic development.

Religious and labor groups in D.C. contend that Gray has given in to Walmart’s bullying tactics. By doing so, he has compromised his community’s future by not standing and fighting for the kind of wages that retailers like Walmart could afford and that the working poor desperately need. Numerous studies, histories and exposes on Walmart’s economic practices demonstrate that Walmart’s low wage jobs won’t actually help D.C.’s poor residents and, in fact, a low-wage workforce strains local communities whose small businesses often close because they can not compete. Low-wage employees depend on social welfare to compensate for their employers’ greed, so in the end we all pay for decisions like the one that Gray has made.

There are many episodes like this one in labor and working-class history where the health and welfare of local communities are pitted against large employers and where questions of race, class and the economy are brought to the fore. One is the campaign in Memphis in 1968 by sanitation workers. In the classroom, the film At the River I Stand might be used by educators to help put to the current campaign for a living wage into historical perspective. The film brings this drama to students in a clear and emotionally poignant way. Rather than a corporate retailer, the antagonist in the documentary is the city of Memphis’s city council and its Mayor, Henry Loeb. In the 58-minute film, the drama of the city’s sanitation workers’ 1968 fight for dignity, manhood, and union rights play out. Students watch as Martin Luther King Jr. and his Poor People’s Campaign are brought into the struggle and a community is mobilized to make its claim for fundamental, economic rights. Clarifying for students the dynamic connection between civil rights, union movements and economic rights, At the River I Stand is a launching point for asking, “What are some of the economic, social, moral and political questions that the struggle for economic rights raises? Do local communities have a responsibility to defend its members’ economic rights? What are some ways that communities and their members do this?” Washington D.C.’s Mayor Gray has cast his lot with big box retailers. Films such as At the River I Stand show students that other options are not only available, but worth fighting for.

This film is available from many libraries, through interlibrary loan, or for purchase from California Newsreel for $24.95.

One response to “Communities Are Worth Fighting For”

  1. Rosemary Feurer Rosemary Feurer says:

    Randi, thanks for a great post. I also use this film occasionally in my classes. These questions are great. There are also opportunities in the film to ask questions for thinking about the dynamics of social movements and repression.

    Michael Honey’s All Labor Has Dignity is a great way to explore the connection between labor and civil rights in accompaniment to this film, or background information.

    What I find interesting about Loeb is that he was educated in the North primarily. He retained his allegiance to white voters on the basis of anticommunism and hyper-patriotism, not necessarily as a stark segregationist. It was the growing civil rights movement that made him into a clear “whites rights” advocate.