In Oakland, Thousands Apply for Wal-Mart Jobs

Wal-Mart may be at odds with unions and many local officials who blocked the company's plans to build superstores. But about 11,000 people lined up for work at the new Wal-Mart in Oakland, Calif. Richard Gonzales reports.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Wal-Mart gets plenty of criticism for offering what some regard as low-paying jobs and poor benefits. Here in California, none of that mattered when Oakland's first Wal-Mart started hiring. More than 11,000 people showed up to apply for just 350 jobs. As NPR's Richard Gonzales reports, some say that has everything to do with the shape of the Bay area's economy.

(Soundbite of people cheering)

Unidentified Man: Gimme a W!

Group of Workers: W!

Unidentified Man: A!

Group of Workers: A!

Unidentified Man: L!

Group of Workers: L!

RICHARD GONZALES reporting:

Economically depressed East Oakland doesn't often have much to celebrate, but yesterday, Wal-Mart's newest employees turned the opening of the first Oakland store into a party.

(Soundbite of people cheering)

Unidentified Man: ...(Unintelligible)

Group of Workers: Low prices always! Woo!

Unidentified Man: ...(Unintelligible)

GONZALES: They were among the chosen few, picked from among 11,000 applicants, all hoping to get a Wal-Mart job that pays an average of $10.82 an hour. Jerri Charles(ph) was one of the lucky ones. After almost three years of office temp work, she's now managing the fabric department.

Ms. JERRI CHARLES (New Wal-Mart Employee): I'm real excited that they chose me, you know, and to know that people will be coming in, buying their fabrics and crafts to make their things from scratch. It makes me feel good to know that I'm able to help them out, with a smile, you know.

GONZALES: Many of the new workers are like 25-year-old Claudia Garcia, a working mom with a two-year-old daughter who had been unemployed for several months.

Ms. CLAUDIA GARCIA (New Wal-Mart Employee): It's a job or no job. I make more here than I do sitting at home watching TV and soap operas and stuff. I make a lot more than I do watching soap operas.

GONZALES: But Oakland's unions aren't cheering. A little more than a block away from the new Wal-Mart, Wendell Chin of the Alameda County Central Labor Council calls the new store a slap in the face.

Mr. WENDELL CHIN (Alameda County Central Labor Council): We feel this is an insult, that they just set up a couple blocks away from the Teamsters, the Longshore Warehouse Union, the janitors, the laborers, Building Trades Construction Council. Most of the labor unions in Alameda County, a lot of them, are right across the street.

GONZALES: Even as unions fight a worldwide battle with Wal-Mart, Chin says he isn't surprised that 11,000 Oaklanders wanted to work there.

Mr. CHIN: They should be happy to have a job. We should check back with them in three months, six months, a year, and see if they're still there and how they feel then. Will they have health care? Will they have job security? Will the workers be allowed to organize?

GONZALES: Some economists say the huge demand for Wal-Mart jobs means the San Francisco Bay area still isn't over the dot-com crash. Economist Stephen Levy says the crash claimed 400,000 jobs and only 20,000 have been recovered.

Mr. STEPHEN LEVY (Economist): The story really has, you know, nothing to do with Wal-Mart and everything to do with why would there be 11,000 people queueing up for those jobs? And it has to be that those Wal-Mart jobs are the best thing that they see available, and that's a commentary on the overall economy.

(Soundbite of people cheering)

Unidentified Woman: ...(Unintelligible) you all have a great day.

GONZALES: Back at the new Oakland Wal-Mart, workers are all revved up, but many local officials shy away. City Councilman Larry Reid is the only elected official in the crowd. Reid says he's taken some heat for helping to bring Wal-Mart into his district, but he offers no apologies.

Mr. LARRY REID (Oakland City Council): (To crowd gathered) This might not be the most political correct thing for me to do, to stand up here, but I tell you, it is the right thing to do in the city of Oakland. Be proud of the fact that you work for Wal-Mart, and let no one else tell you any different.

GONZALES: Not long ago, this was just an empty field, says Reid. Now, he foresees it reaping about a half-million dollars in sales tax revenues for his cash-strapped city. Richard Gonzales, NPR News, Oakland.

MONTAGNE: This is NPR News.

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