When you think of the many things wrong with 21st century U.S. capitalism - low wages, dead-end jobs, bosses’ dictatorship and the super-exploitation of Asian workers to make cheap products for sale to impoverished workers here - one company almost always comes to mind: Walmart. At $8.90 an hour for the average “associate,” Walmart pays some of the lowest wages in the U.S. while employing a larger share of U.S. workers than any other private company.
Perhaps because of this, it finds millions of dollars every year to spend on vicious anti-union lawsuits and worker intimidation programs. Throughout its 50-year history, Walmart has remained union- and strike-free, providing a bastion of the “open shop” for post-1970s, neoliberal America. But in recent months, this has started to change. Walmart workers are beginning to stand up for their rights.
Largest Actions against Walmart on Black Friday
On November 23, “Black Friday,” the largest wave of demonstrations and walkouts ever to hit Walmart took place. The actions were led by OUR Walmart (Organization United for Respect at Walmart), an organization of Walmart workers set up by the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) union. OUR Walmart has grown to thousands of members in more than 40 states by campaigning against the brutal conditions workers face and using the limited rights non-union workers have. This includes the right to collectively organize and strike over working conditions and retaliation by management.
A small but heroic number of Walmart workers have since taken the bold step of walking off the job. Following the historic strikes at Walmart warehouses in Illinois and California in September - and numerous rolling strikes of small numbers of workers at stores throughout October – on Black Friday, up to 1,000 of the company’s stores in 46 states were picketed, disrupted or struck. The vast majority of actions involved a single worker walking out of work in protest. But in Paramount, California, as many as 19 workers took strike action.
In Secaucus, New Jersey, 400 Occupy and union activists picketed in front of a combined Walmart/Sam’s Club complex for three hours, flagging down carloads of customers as they entered and getting strong support. Socialist Alternative members participated in the actions. We also went in the store. Using a flash-mob tactic that’s hard for managers to predict or control, groups of activists gathered throughout the store at exactly 1:30 and called out Occupy-style “mic checks,” highlighting the embarrassingly low wages Walmart pays, standing for the need for an end to anti-union terror, and calling on workers to join the campaign to defend their rights.
We passed out information to workers and customers - many of whom were amused and supportive - and then split up to avoid the anxious managers and security guards roaming the floor and pushing mic-checkers out the door. Once outside, we staged a rally in front of the main entrance for a good half hour before local cops pushed us back, sending us on a loud and winding march through the massive Walmart parking lot.
Unions Pursue New Strategy
Actions like this took place across the country. They consisted not only of Walmart workers and OUR Walmart staffers, but of many community activists who simply wanted to take a shot at the dominant low-wage corporation. They broadcasted the plight of Walmart workers and the need for change to a large number of customers and helped support the 100-plus Walmart employees already on strike since September. What these actions didn’t do, it seems, was negatively affect the company’s bottom line. Walmart - of course - claims the protests had little impact, but less biased sources, like The Huffington Post, also reported minimal detraction from shopping. At this stage of the game, however, it is arguable that direct economic damage is not the primary goal. Far more important is the confidence that workers are gaining by standing up for their rights in Walmart workplaces.
Having tried unsuccessfully for over a decade to organize Walmart stores, the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) - America’s largest retail union - is clearly pursuing a new strategy. U.S. labor law and employers’ vicious anti-unionism make the chances for organizing a union and winning a first contract at any given workplace according to official “rules” less than 1 in 4 - and probably much lower if campaigns are counted that withdraw before elections. At spread-out service firms like Walmart - or McDonald’s, Target, Taco Bell, Home Depot, etc. - it is even harder to organize lasting unions on this model, since successful campaigns can be met with store closings due to the relatively low cost of investment in any given outlet.
Given this environment, it is unsurprising that ten years of sporadic UFCW campaigns have yielded a big fat zero on the membership charts. Organizing retail - and low-wage service jobs generally - requires going beyond the narrow and ineffective channel otherwise known as the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB).
New Organizing Forms
One way to break out of this corral is to build associational power outside the workplace. This can happen either through the formation of open-membership worker organizations, like OUR Walmart, or the mobilization of social justice, anti-racist, and immigrant rights groups along with other community support networks, as was the case in the famous Justice for Janitors campaigns in the 1990s and many smaller campaigns since.
The UFCW has clearly learned from these efforts and from the hundreds of open-membership workers’ centers sprouting up around the country. In 2011 it founded OUR Walmart as a separate organization that any Walmart worker can join. OUR Walmart is not legally a union: It cannot, for example, bargain with the company over wages and working conditions. What it can do, however, is educate workers about the limited rights they can use and provide workers with an organizing umbrella for ongoing campaigns that may result in formal unionization, as several smaller efforts by the similarly non-union - but union-affiliated - Retail Action Project have already done in New York City.
Another way to break the NLRB deadlock is through the flexing of key workers’ structural power in the supply chain. The success of Walmart and other big-box firms is largely a function of their centralized and sophisticated logistics systems. Store-level inventories are replenished through just-in-time deliveries from regional distribution centers, which in turn depend on shipments from huge national transport hubs in the Los Angeles, Chicago, and New York metro areas. Many of these warehouse workers are not employed directly by Walmart, but by multiple layers of shady subcontractors that exercise the most brutal - and blatantly illegal - forms of labor exploitation on predominantly immigrant workers.
But it is precisely these workers, in contrast to their store-level counterparts, who could shut down big portions of the company through concerted strike action - not unlike the sit-down strikers in Flint, Michigan who brought GM to a screeching halt in the winter of 1937. Crucially, the UFCW has begun to build this form of worker power in its campaign against Walmart: Warehouse workers at the Los Angeles and Chicago-area transport hubs courageously walked out in September to protest inhuman working conditions.
These were not random, spontaneous actions, but the products of several years’ organizing by immigrant workers with the help of local workers’ centers: Warehouse Workers United (WWU) in L.A. and Warehouse Workers for Justice (WWJ) in Chicago. New Jersey’s warehouse workers have also been organizing under the framework of the New Labor workers’ center, but they have as yet been unable to take strike action.
At present, both forms of real worker power - associational and structural - are in processes of formation among Walmart workers, with coordination coming from the UFCW, OUR Walmart, and local workers’ centers. This kind of bold, movement-building approach is a positive step by the leaders of UFCW and other Change to Win (CtW) unions - one which, if consistently pursued over the past 30 or 40 years, might have prevented the colossal decline in unions, wages, and living standards we’ve seen since then.
The Role of the Unions
But we also have to be clear that the UFCW and its CtW brethren - SEIU, the Teamsters and, to a lesser extent, UFW - are top-down, bureaucratic organizations with track records of squelching union democracy when it conflicts with the objectives and privileges of paid union officials. Not to mention that the leaders of these organizations are bound at the hip to the Democratic Party, funneling millions to them every election season despite the party’s continued anti-worker, anti-union, pro-business policies.
Some on the left might claim that these factors make unions like the UFCW useless for building worker power in U.S. society or at companies like Walmart. Others might take a wholly uncritical approach, delegating all decision-making power and moral authority to the leaders of UFCW and OUR Walmart. But these are no reasons not to aggressively begin serious organizing efforts. The first argument ignores the potential for workers to win meaningful material gains even under the framework of unions that are bureaucratic and, initially, class-collaborationist - as the histories of both the Teamsters and the Steelworkers bear out.
The second argument is a recipe for long-term defeat, since the source of worker power under capitalism consists not in contracts or slick negotiating skills – or, for that matter, in employer largesse or middle-class sympathy - but in the ability of workers, when they act collectively in their own interests, to shut down key sources of capitalist money-making. The left needs to get involved in these organizing efforts, while at the same time arguing for the maximum power to rest with the workers themselves. At the same time, the left should be putting forward effective, dynamic strategies to help arm a new layer of worker activists at Walmart, who will play the main role in winning the decisive battles to come.
Mobilize Millions for Workers Rights
Despite the small number of workers who actually struck, the OUR Walmart campaign and the actions taken by hundreds of heroic Walmart workers represent important steps forward. With over 1.4 million workers working in brutal conditions for pitiful wages, the potential for explosive developments cannot be ruled out. Ultimately, winning living-wage jobs, respectful working conditions, and a union for all Walmart workers will require the mobilization of millions.
It is absolutely crucial that the activity of Walmart workers themselves be at the heart of any strategy. This includes democratic decision-making by the workers, as opposed to the top-down models that currently dominate the labor movement. The lessons of the 1930s labor battles will be crucial. Mass strikes, picket lines of thousands, occupations, and other militant tactics will be crucial for effective action by the powerful ranks of Walmart workers.
While the current strategy to avoid the normal NLRB channels and use the limited existing laws for non-union workers can provide an important start, ultimately the law is stacked against workers. Organizing at Walmart should be combined with broader campaigns and movements to advance workers rights. While we should take advantage of every single legal opening we can get, we should not acquiesce to the limitations of a draconian legal system designed by corporate politicians to make effective action by workers nearly impossible.
Any meaningful change for the 1.4 million workers at Walmart will require mobilizing millions to demand our rights in spite of the law – and in defiance of it. Previous struggles have shown that unjust laws can be defeated through massive mobilizations of workers’ power. Otherwise, there would be no unions today, and racist segregation laws would never have been overturned. This would also mean mobilizing active support among the pubic and the community in defense of these organizing efforts.
If a non-union, low-wage Walmart epitomizes much that is wrong with contemporary capitalism, a unionized, living-wage Walmart would point more clearly in the direction of what is really needed: the public ownership and democratic control by workers of all key sectors of the economy, from manufacturing and finance to education, health care and, yes, even retail.