I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard someone talking about Walmart’s low, low prices with the dollar signs almost visibly flashing in their otherwise vacant eyes. But what are we really talking about here? Do you ever get something for nothing? Walmart executives will say that since the company is so big it enjoys an economy of scale and can pass low prices on to consumers. But those low prices also depend on the company’s willingness to squash competition, neglect reasonable labor practices, destroy communities, purchase political favors and entrap people desperate for a job into pay insufficient for any real quality of life.
That’s why striking workers will pay a visit to Walmart’s headquarters in Arkansas today to put the corporate behemoth on notice. Unless demands are met for better working conditions — including an end to illegal retribution against organizers — Walmarts around the country should be prepared for bold actions and work disruptions on Black Friday, the biggest sales day of the year. Yesterday, Walmart workers walked off the job at 28 stores in 12 states, making it already much more widespread than the only other strike in the company’s history, in 2006. As someone helping to support the campaigns through community organizing and online tools, I’ve found their boldness and tenacity nothing short of inspirational.
Walmart is the largest private employer in the world, the largest retailer in the world and the largest single employer in the United States. Although it has a “buy American” campaign, fully 80 percent of its goods are imported from China alone. The majority of its employees work part time, and those who have children live below the poverty line — their kids qualify for free lunch at school and don’t have access to health care. Most are people of color. Although Walmart does offer a health care plan that the few full-time workers can buy into, it costs as much as 35 percent of their pay, which many can’t afford. Walmart also contracts with third-party vendors to move its warehoused goods, enabling it to bypass even minimal labor safety laws and health standards. The result is stuff that you thought didn’t happen in the USA: no potable water available, overheated dirty containers to work in, broken equipment putting workers at risk.
Walmart has thus developed an innovative form of corporate welfare: Through the minimal social safety net, U.S. taxpayers provide an unofficial subsidy for Walmart employees who are struggling on low wages and short hours, enabling the corporation to make about $35,000 in profit every minute. It’s almost as if the Walton family is creating a new class of people — modern day serfs, beholden to their feudal Walton lords.
This race to the bottom is not just a problem for workers, either. As Walmarts open in new communities, 35 to 60 percent of small businesses near the store go under. Every new employee hired at a Walmart thereby represents 1.4 lost jobs — jobs that paid, on average, about 20 percent more. Falling sales-tax revenues add salt to the festering wounds of shuttered storefronts. In this way, Walmart has played a starring role in the massive downward cycle of the American quality of life over its 50 years of existence, even while promising more goods at lower prices. Elsewhere in the world, it has perpetuated lax environmental regulations and policies supporting even more miserable labor practices.
Walmart workers have had enough. In September, California warehouse workers walked out, taking the invisible struggles of the supply-chain workers into the streets on a 50-mile, six-day pilgrimage dubbed the “WalMarch,” in the tradition of Gandhi’s Salt March. The courage of these non-unionized workers demanding basic health and safety motivated others to walk out as well, including warehouse workers near Chicago, who just won a critical Wage Theft suit on Saturday after three weeks on strike.
Non-union organizing like this is not new — it has been a part of labor struggles since time immemorial, although strategic collective action packs significantly more punch if the union option is available. Historical examples of such independent or “wildcat” strikes include the 1894 Pullman Railroad strike and some of the May 1968 strikes in Paris. Right now, there are non-union hotel workers in California exercising their organizing rights too, thanks to National Labor Relations Board rulings similar to union protections.
Since Walmart is voraciously anti-union, with a history of even shutting down its stores rather than allowing a union to start, organizers have decided not to seek recognition as a union from Walmart. Instead, they’re running the campaign through OUR Walmart, a year-old organization supported by the United Food and Commercial Workers union but that is very intentionally not calling itself a union as such. These non-unionized workers, therefore, face real dangers as they take on the biggest employer in the country. Over the past year Walmart has used unfair disciplinary actions, cutbacks in working hours and even firings in illegal attempts to silence and terrorize organizers. It’s essential, therefore, that the workers rally public support, such as through online petitions, to make clear to Walmart that such tactics will not be tolerated.
The organizers’ strategic focus on the supply side of the equation, bringing warehouse workers into the fray as well as retail employees, has ushered in a new paradigm for action: concerted walkouts and strikes on both the supply side and the consumer front. It is a well-planned strategy, the result of several years of work in helping workers build a foundation of supporters, strengthening their capacity by engaging in lower risk actions, learning to speak out and tell their stories, documenting abuses, and analyzing bottlenecks and weak links in operations. They’re also focusing their efforts on demands for livable wages and the right to organize without retaliation, which would clear the way for many more campaigns in the future — for Walmart workers and beyond. If a company as massive as Walmart is forced to change its labor practices, the ripples will be felt far and wide.