Many workers and activists have been excited by the recent reports of walkouts and strikes against Walmart. For years unions have tried to organize workers in this notoriously antiunion corporation. Walmart employs over 1.4 million people in the U.S. and many earn so little that they have to rely on food stamps and other government assistance. Activists want to know if the strikes at warehouses in California and Illinois and walkouts at retails stores in multiple states mark a turning point, or merely a ramping-up of the UFCW's public relations campaigns against the $400 billion retail giant?
The warehouse strikes were launched by two separate campaigns, the one in Illinois led by Warehouse Workers for Justice (WWJ) with organizing staff from UE - the independent, Left-wing union that successfully occupied Republic Windows in December 2008 - and the California Warehouse Workers United which is sponsored by the SEIU and UFCW.
In these warehouse strikes, "permanent temps" employed through employment agencies (rather than WalMart "associates" who are subjected to an intensively anti-union regime, complete with token company shares and an imposed rah-rah culture) were fighting back on behalf of workers who were fired for filing wage-theft claims. Having stepped to the front of the struggle the warehouse workers then marched to take their message to company HQ in Benton, Arkansas and to the retail stores, dozens of which have now seen walkouts. The Elwood, Illinois campaign was a smash success, with all employees returned to work after 21 days with back pay for the period they were on strike. This is a sharp victory which needs to be publicized far and wide.
The warehouse organizing campaigns are of vital importance. In both cases these well-planned actions are aimed at organizing massive inland container ports - the Californian "Inland Empire"in the San Bernadino Valley and the giant warehouse complexes in and around Chicago which by some estimates is the world's biggest inland container port, built with public funds to take advantage of the existing confluence of road, rail and water transportation in the center of the continent - and handling almost a trillion dollars of goods every year. http://www.warehouseworker.org/industry.html
The United Food and Commercial Workers union or UFCW has been trying to organize WalMart stores since at least 1999. The only successful NLRB campaign in the US, in which meat cutters at a store in Texas voted to join the union, was met by WalMart closing all meat cutting operations at its US stores. A handful of election wins in Canada, where labor laws are less anti-union than in the US, have been confronted with store closures and also in several cases, decertification elections after the union failed to win a first contract.
All of the big-box stores in the U.S. are anti-union. Target, Home Depot, Menards, Walmart and Costco (Costco, whose CEO was greeted as a savior at the Democratic Party convention!) try to brainwash employees with anti-union videos as a condition of employment and require managers to report anyone who they suspect of pro-union sympathies. This can reach such ludicrous extremes as supervisors being told to try to prevent employees from socializing off the job or even from learning each others' last names or friending each other on social media.
WalMart was targeted by the UFCW and other unions because it's by far the biggest and fastest-growing, with more than 1.4 million workers in the US and profits so fabulous that the Walton family owns assets worth more than 42% of the rest of the inhabitants of the USA. WalMart has the most aggressive cost-cutting practices, subjecting workers to dangerous and discriminatory working conditions and pay and benefits so low that Human Resource staff routinely send workers to apply for public benefits - a taxpayer-funded subsidy for low pay and unaffordable medical benefits. (WalMart supported the passage of the Affordable Care Act, aka Obamacare).
The UFCW began its campaign when it saw that grocery chains like Safeway and Albertsons with whom it has existing contracts were threatened by competition from WalMart. Those companies' response to this competition was to demand concessions from their employees and this led to the initial organizing drives. When organizing was stymied by WalMart's highly sophisticated anti-union methods, the UFCW resorted to a series of campaigns that aim to enlist small businesses, environmentalists and organizations of women and people of color to paint WalMart as a bad corporate citizen and try to keep it out of urban markets.
The problem with this approach has always been that it relies on people who don't work at WalMart to do the job. It is in effect a popular front, in which the feelings and agendas of small businesses and middle-class pressure groups, as well as the union's existing relationships with other employers, were given more consideration than the needs of the employees themselves. Following internal struggles within the UFCW, in which more militant tactics were given a boost by successes in the meat-packing field as well as elsewhere in the retail supply chain, the "OUR Walmart" group, an association rather than a union, which any employee can join for $5 a month, was launched as a counter to this problem and as a way for retail associates to gain a voice and some ownership over future campaigns.
The OUR Walmart campaign differs from previous unionizing efforts in that it is not immediately trying to organize workers into UFCW. OUR Walmart “works to ensure that every Associate, regardless of his or her title, age, race, or sex, is respected at Walmart. We join together to offer strength and support in addressing the challenges that arise in our stores and our company everyday.”
More organizing drives should take on this model or some of the ideas from this model. Unions in their essence are organizations of workers banded together for mutual respect and power against the boss. A union is only as strong as the workers are united in their resolve to fight the bosses. No union can guarantee any raises or improvements in working conditions to workers, it can only promise that workers, by forming a union, will have the tools necessary to fight for what they need.
Union organizers and supporters must return to making these class-based arguments for building unions. Union bureaucrats have buried these ideas as a threat to their status quo of negotiations and lobbying to form unions. This gives to workers the impression that they are little more than a “dues unit,” an idea reinforced in some unions that then discourage any shop floor organizing in favor of call centers to handle grievances and organizing. If union organizing drives operate only on the basis of promises of “vote for the union and you’ll get higher wages and benefits – oh and dues will be minimal” then working people will be forced to choose between the employer they don’t really trust, but who promises continued employment, versus the union which they don’t know and which they justly fear may be unable to effectively protect them from employer retaliation.
OUR Walmart is also building international links. The Swiss-based organization UNI (http://www.uniglobalunion.org) held a three day conference in Los Angeles on October 3rd to prepare to launch a Walmart Global Union Alliance. All of this has enormous implications for the future of union organizing.
To quote Sarah Frances, an OUR Walmart organizer who was interviewed for this article:
"This coordination in organizing along the supply chain is especially notable, not only because it's against the world's largest (under)employer, but because it doesn't even bother to conform to the archaic NLRB rules. NLRB rules are for unions pre-globalization, in this day and age where we have a GLOBAL 1% that is exploiting us as a GLOBAL working class, we absolutely need to think on that GLOBAL scale. We have to cut out all the "who's in the bargaining unit? who's not?" and "Buy American" and just ask ourselves plain and simple, "who all needs to fold their arms to influence production?". This campaign answers that question by reaching out to the entire supply chain- from retail store employees across the US, to warehouse employees at the major ports in CA and IL, and textile employees in Bangladesh".
Momentum is now building for actions at WalMart stores on "Black Friday", the day after Thanksgiving. WalMart is a huge foe of organized labor. The boycotts and publicity campaigns of the past thirteen years have not organized one single store. It is vitally important that the labor and pro-labor community supports their efforts to organize with their coworkers. All of organized labor should be prepared to help shut down WalMart with mass picketing at both retail stores and warehouses on November 23.