Why Walmart, Why Now?

In These Times

Labor historian Nelson Lichtenstein sheds light on the new surge of Walmart protests.

If, over the next several months, Walmart does not systematically retaliate against these striking workers, it will show other workers that they can stick their necks out. It will embolden other workers to do the same thing.

For years, the world’s retail behemoth, Walmart, has seemed impervious to organizing attempts. Unions, specifically the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW), have attempted to organize retail workers at the company—long known for both its low prices and poverty wages—but the company’s aggressive union-busting has always won the day.

So it comes as a surprise to many to hear, seemingly out of the blue, that workers in both the retail and distribution arms of the company have walked off the job in Illinois, Maryland, Dallas, California, and elsewhere over the last month. Striking warehouse workers have organized with Warehouse Workers United in California and Warehouse Workers for Justice in Illinois; retail workers around the country with OUR Walmart—all organizations affiliated with unions, but which aren’t unions themselves.

In These Times asked labor historian Nelson Lichtenstein to shed some light on the recent wave of Walmart worker unrest. Lichtenstein, director of the Center for the Study of Work, Labor and Democracy and a professor of history at the University of California-Santa Barbara, has long observed both Walmart’s business practices and workers’ attempts to organize there. He is the author of The Retail Revolution: How Walmart Created a Brave New World of Business.

There have been past attempts by unions to organize Walmart workers that haven’t gained much traction. What has changed?

Ten years ago, the UFCW went the orthodox organizing route. There were workers who signed union cards, including majorities in some places. But Walmart was extremely good at using existing labor law, which is extremely pro-corporate, to squash it. The UFCW realized that that wasn’t going to work. So OUR Walmart [Organization United for Respect at Walmart] is a kind of return to labor formations of the 1930s. It’s an association–they aren’t looking for legal certification, they don’t claim to represent everyone. They’re a minority that is willing to stick their necks out.

It’s a demonstration strike. For every one worker who actually goes outside and holds a picket sign, you can be sure that 25 workers inside the store or in other stores feel the same way but are afraid to be publicly identified.

What’s remarkable is that this current of pissed-off workers has always existed. But in the past, you could be certain that when a worker, or even an assistant manager, didn’t tow the Walmart line, they would be fired. Not immediately, to stay on the right side of labor law, but within the year, you could be certain they’d be gone.

If, over the next several months, Walmart does not systematically retaliate against these striking workers, it will show other workers that they can stick their necks out. It will embolden other workers to do the same thing. These actions could really be the tip of the iceberg.

Both the retail and the warehouse workers engaged in unfair labor practice strikes—a fairly risky tactic with a high chance of failure.

Well, what’s failure and what’s success? If the strikes are very visible, and workers identify themselves on the picket line outside of Walmart, and those workers keep their jobs for, say, a year afterwards, and there’s no visible retaliation, that’s success.

Now, surely the UFCW knows that they can’t just abandon these workers, and let them be picked off one by one by management over the next year. They need to be right there on top of Walmart, so if people have their hours cut or are put on a lousy shift, they can come back and say, “You are retaliating against concerted protected activity. These workers are protected by labor law—you can’t retaliate against them.”

These retail strikes are happening immediately after Walmart warehouse workers in Elwood, Ill., announced a big victory from their strike: 30 workers who walked off the job in September returned to work on Saturday with full back pay. How important is it that these efforts are focusing on Walmart’s distribution system and retail stores simultaneously?

The competitive advantage of Walmart is their superb distribution system. There are layers of subcontractors, but it’s all one system. It’s a mass sweatshop, where pressure is put through subcontractors to squeeze labor. The industry is the supply chain, regardless of who is the technical employer.

One of the competitive advantages of Walmart is their ability to deploy labor in ways that they refer to as “flexible.” Come in tonight, work three hours tomorrow, etc. For the workers, this is chaos. So a serious organizing success would be if, in the next six months, workers get more predictable shifts, or if store managers think twice before moving someone around from shift to shift.

When workers voted in a union in Quebec and they were actually forced to negotiate with a union, the union did not ask for wage or benefits increases. They simply wanted to give workers predictable shifts—to make it possible for workers to have lives. Instead of doing this, Walmart shut the store down. Walmart was saying, “We cannot operate when workers are sure of a regular shift.”

In an interview for Salon on the strikes, Columbia University Professor Dorian Warren said that the old attempts to organize the company “had been so predictable from Walmart’s point of view,” but that these new forms of organizing to disrupt the distribution chain are a game-changer. Do you agree?

I do. I think if Walmart doesn’t know that these strikes will reappear every so often, that changes things. They have to ask themselves, “Are we going to just have another press release, or are we actually going to change working conditions?” And as I said, if these workers can get away with no retaliation, that will embolden other workers in the future. Lots of labor history takes place in the absence of a union, with informal, subtle pressures. And that’s what’s happening here.

Walmart has emphasized, often aggressively, in some of its PR correspondence that it doesn’t feel threatened by these actions, that this is just business as usual between them and the UFCW. Do you think the company is feeling the heat?

For many years, there has been a kind of rhetorical war between liberals and Walmart about whether the company’s record on a number of issues, from sweatshops in China to the environment. But now, you’ve got actual workers out on strike.

This adds a lot of legitimacy of the critique of Walmart. You need actual Walmart workers, with names and faces, to argue the case against the company. Because that puts the focus right where it should be: on the workers and their lived conditions.

Liberals have always leveled somewhat abstract critiques of Walmart; this strike can make those critiques more concrete.

Yes. The strike takes things beyond the liberal critique of Walmart—which is a fine critique, but it’s not going to solve these problems. Other issues like the environment are important, but the core issue is, what is the character of work at Walmart? Workers aren’t on the picket line because of Walmart’s environmental record, or because of sweatshops in China, both of which are horrible. They’re trying to transform their daily existence. And that’s the core of what the labor movement does.


Walmart Strikes Extend to 12 Cities, Black Friday Actions Planned

The wildcat strikes by non-union Walmart associates are approaching a critical mass. The first-ever strikes have now spread to 12 cities across the country – including Chicago, Dallas, Miami, Orlando, Seattle, and various locations in California – with workers joined by labor and community activists. Protests have been held in front of 200 Walmart stores in the US. Another 100 workers traveled to corporate HQ in Bentonville, Arkansas, to protest the retaliatory measures taken against workers who advocate for higher pay and better working conditions.

Now, OUR Walmart, the organization putting together the strikes and protests, have put out a threat for planned actions around the most important retail day of the year, Black Friday.

Mr. Schlademan, director of the union-backed Making Change at Walmart campaign, added that more than 200 employees were traveling to Wal-Mart’s headquarters in Bentonville, Ark., to stage a protest on Wednesday during the company’s annual meeting with financial analysts.

He warned that disgruntled Wal-Mart employees, joined by labor unions and community groups, might stage a combined protest and educational campaign the Friday after Thanksgiving, the traditional start of the holiday shopping season.

Obviously these are small numbers compared to the 1.4 million Walmart employees nationwide. We’re talking about hundreds of workers walking off the job, a tiny fraction. But this is of course just the beginning of the labor actions. There are actions at 200 Walmart stores today. If that grows, and thousands of stores see employees “reclaim” Black Friday for workers, as the campaign says they will, that could get the attention of the executive suites.

“Walmart’s efforts to try to silence us is only building support among our co-workers in calling for changes at the store,” said Colby Harris, a Walmart employee in Lancaster, Texas, making $8.90 an hour. “We will not be silenced, especially on Black Friday when Walmart wants us to cut short the holiday with our families to help the company profit. If Walmart wants workers fully committed to the stores on Black Friday, Walmart needs to do more for us the rest of the days of the year.” The actions will not necessarily take the form of strikes, but “rallies, flash mobs, direct action and other efforts to inform customers about the illegal actions that Walmart has been taking against its workers,” according to the organizers.

Leaders from groups like the National Consumers League, the National Organization for Women, labor organizations and more endorsed the proposed Black Friday efforts.

A spokesman for Walmart described their jobs as “some of the best jobs in retail,” with an average wage of $12.54 an hour. But the spokesman would not specify how many associates get full-time hours. The company, meanwhile, made $16 billion in profits last year, executives netted $10 million in compensation, and the Walton family is the richest in the country, accumulating as much wealth as the lower 42% of American households, combined.

Anyone who thinks that Walmart will change their labor practices without a major struggle is kidding themselves. OUR Walmart has a huge task in front of them. It’s entirely possible they won’t succeed. And yet, maybe a fire will spread.

One Comment

Go workers!! An injury to one is an injury to all.

If these people somehow inexplicably manage to tame the beast I might reconsider my motto: If you have to buy it at WallMart you don’t need it.