En Masse and Without Precedent, Walmart Workers Rise Up


Today, OUR Walmart, an association of workers at the retail giant, announced it will stage a wide range of actions nationwide on "Black Friday"–the kick-off of the holiday shopping season–if Walmart does not meet to resolve complaints about working conditions and retaliation. More than 200 OUR Walmart leaders mevoted Tuesday night to picket stores, strike, leaflet, rally and convene "flash mobs" on the Friday after Thanksgiving.

"Whatever is necessary, we will do," said Dallas retail store worker Colby Harris, who emphasized that all activities will be non-violent.

The decision comes as the wave of Walmart worker strikes and protests swelled again this week. The actions have been catalyzed by poor working conditions and alleged company retaliation against those who air grievances. Retail strikes broke out in at least eight new cities on Tuesday, and workers staged a major protest at the corporation's Bentonville, Ark., headquarters on Wednesday.

The actions over the past few months–warehouse strikes, retail store strikes, marches, sit-down blockades and more–represent the biggest challenge by workers and allies to Walmart’s low-wage, anti-union employment strategy in the company's 50-year history.

Following last Thursday’s strike by 63 Walmart workers in the Los Angeles metropolitan area–the first significant retail strike at the world’s largest merchandiserworkers walked off the job Tuesday morning at Walmart stores in Dallas, Texas; the Bay Area and Sacramento, California; Seattle; Miami; Washington, D.C. and Chicago. None of the workers has union representation, but labor law protects their right to collective action over workplace issues.”

Over the weekend, in another confrontation with Walmart, non-union subcontract laborers at one of Walmart's largest distribution centers in Elwood, Ill., ended their 21-day unfair-labor-practice strike with all strikers returning to their jobs with full back pay. The logistics operator of the warehouse also took some steps before strikers returned to improve safety.

"That was great. We won everything. It was a victory," striker Phil Bailey tells Working In These Times. He says the workers marched back in together wearing T-shirts emblazoned with “Warehouse Workers for Justice,” the worker’s center established by the UE (United Electrical Workers) to raise standards in the industry. Bailey said the UE subgroup of workers in his warehouse–the Warehouse Workers Organizing Committee–will continue to try to organize and even spread out nationally as part of UE’s strategy for the industry.

Many of Tuesday's retail store strikers headed to Bentonville the next day for OUR Walmart's national strategy meeting, as well as a rally outside corporate headquarters and a frustrated attempt to meet with Walmart's director of human resources. They also tried to influence a meeting today between Walmart executives and Wall Street stock analysts by presenting the analysts in advance with arguments that the company's "low-road business model" makes Walmart a bad deal for investors.

"I'm losing my voice from chanting, but it's long overdue," a Dallas-area striker, Josue "Josh" Mata, said yesterday from the picket line. "We have a chance today to call out Walmart on the way it treats workers."

Mata, 20, is an overnight maintenance man making $8.70 an hour at one of the three Dallas Walmarts where strikers from nine different stores congregated after walking out early Tuesday morning. Like many other associates, he wanted the company to stop retaliating against workers who speak out, to show respect to workers and to improve the workplace as well as the pay.

Last week's strike in the Los Angeles area encouraged him. "That was one step for us," Mata said. "It was empowering to see what associates could do."

"It was kind of scary at first," said Stacey Cottongame, 30, who has worked at Walmart since 2001, "but as associates see other associates band together, they'll join in, too."

Walmart workers are uniting globally as well as nationally. Last week, Walmart workers from around the world agreed to band together in a new alliance formed through UNI, one of the big global union confederations. Such alliances are common in heavily unionized global industries such as auto manufacturing or telecommunications. Although some Walmart workers in other countries have unions, UNI figures that only 7 percent of workers at the more than 10,000 stores worldwide (excluding China and Mexico) are in a union.

The new Walmart alliance members will share information, help each other organize, take joint actions and "shine a spotlight on Walmart's poor track record [in respecting workers and their rights] wherever they seek to expand." UFCW spokesman Jorge Amaro said the alliance "will synchronize actions on a global level” and push Walmart to sign a global agreement to respect workers' right to organize without intervention or retaliation.

Walmart workers–both direct employees and contract workers–are turning to local allies for support. For example, as strikers from Tuesday return to their jobs, local ministers and community leaders will escort many back to work, and supporters will rally outside the stores.

UFCW has also pulled together a group of national allies, including the National Consumers League and the National Organization for Women (which is involved with three ongoing state-level sexual discrimination lawsuits against Walmart), into an umbrella group called Making Change at Walmart that publicizes critiques of Walmart’s practices and tries to hold them publicly and legally accountable.

Walmart organizers also see some of the company’s investors, especially public pension funds, as potential allies if offered compelling evidence that more workforce investment would make Walmart a stronger company. UFCW capital stewardship researcher John Marshall compiled a stack of arguments and data to this effect and sent them to the stock analysts currently meeting with Walmart. Although sales in the average store have begun improving after nine consecutive quarters of decline, Marshall writes that Walmart's short-staffing and mistreatment of workers leads to a bad reputation (which can hurt both sales and expansion), as well as poor service, store stocking problems, low morale and other issues that can reduce productivity and profits. He cites two business-school studies showing that stores that invest more in payroll and training have much higher productivity and higher-rated service.

The strikes in recent days are not like the typical contract strikes at a unionized company. They are much spottier–usually with a minority of workers, often a quite small minority, leaving work only for a short time. Organizers are never entirely sure who will drop out of the strike or be swept in at the last minute. Most of the strikers are leaders in OUR Walmart, who hope by their actions to demonstrate to other workers that group action is possible.

But with the holiday shopping season coming, the job actions–especially at the warehouses—still have the potential to be disruptive to Walmart. Not to mention that, in the long run, they can build the sense of a public movement and encourage more workers to overcome their fears and join in a collective effort.

"It's not hard to convince people [at Walmart about the need for change]," Harris says. "We work there together, but people are so fearful." That can change, but it takes time and effort, as Chicago-area warehouse worker Mike Compton explained: "When we first started organizing, it was a little rough. People were scared. But we were on strike 22 days and came back in. Now we need to educate people about their rights. We've got some work ahead of us."

David Moberg, a senior editor of In These Times, has been on the staff of the magazine since it began publishing in 1976. Before joining In These Times, he completed his work for a Ph.D. in anthropology at the University of Chicago and worked for Newsweek. He has received fellowships from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and the Nation Institute for research on the new global economy. He can be reached at [email protected] 

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