Opportunities Present for “Labor Left” in Walmart and Fast Food Fights

For the first time in many years, there are not one, but two exciting new campaigns that have great potential to put unions back on the map of public consciousness. The efforts to organize workers at Walmart as well as workers at fast food restaurants and other big box stores in cities across the US have caught the attention of millions of people who previously had little to no connection to organized labor.

In this article, I offer some thoughts on what makes these campaigns so exciting, followed by a sober assessment of the challenges that they face. I’ll close with four recommendations for radicals looking to get involved in supporting these efforts, as I believe they should.

The SEIU-backed "Fight for 15" (FF15) campaign focusing on fast food workers and the UFCW-backed campaign to organize Walmart workers have re-energized activists in cities across the US. There's an impressive boldness in both of these campaigns that we haven't seen from labor in many years of defensive struggles, setbacks, and outright defeats. Many of the activists in these campaigns cite the Occupy encampments of two years ago as a formative political experience. Chants of "We–are–the 99%!" are again heard in the streets of many cities, bouncing from one fast food joint to the next. They can even be heard in the suburbs, where activists march through Walmart parking lots and stores, providing media and supportive shoppers with a spectacle and giving management a migraine.

More importantly, workers have been energized–not just any workers, but those in industries still largely considered "unorganizable," due to high turnover rates and bosses from the board room to store offices who are well-practiced in retaliating against any worker brave enough to take a stand. These are also industries where workers are disproportionately female, young, Black, Latino, and earning just above minimum wage, if not right at it–and it should go without saying, but these demographics are central to organizing any working class rebellion in the United States, where capitalist exploitation has always been buttressed by the oppression of women and racial minorities.

These campaigns have also been conceived and run in a way that breaks with "traditional" concepts of organizing, where the union identifies a shop, encourages a majority of workers to sign membership cards, petitions the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) to hold an election, and (hopefully) wins the election and goes on to negotiate a contract. Because bosses routinely break the rules and intimidate workers with impunity, many consider this process to be broken (or worse, rigged). It's also a model that is presently ill-suited to organizing extremely large employers like Walmart and McDonald's.

Instead of running workers into that dead end, both unions have organized a series of highly publicized and militant actions, including brief strikes involving one or several workers at a store, before even talking about cards and contracts. These have been recognized as Unfair Labor Practice (ULP) strikes by the NLRB, which allows the striking workers to go back to their jobs without fear of retaliation–at least in theory (getting ULP recognition is an ongoing fight in many cases, and even when it’s obtained, employers still find ways to retaliate). When the bosses hands are effectively tied, as they were when Walmart workers struck last year, the strikes have functioned as a sort of "propaganda of the deed," showing workers who did not strike that they too can take a stand against the largest employer in the world–and get away with it!

The media attention and show of support from activists that accompanied the strikes also demonstrated to workers how deeply their demands for respect, a livable wage, and the right to organize resonated among the general public. Even "symbolic" strikes, engineered to produce media attention and create a small ruckus, have already had a significant impact in supporting the growth of these organizing efforts. So much buzz was created by FF15 demonstrations in Chicago, Philadelphia, New York, and other cities that a SEIU organizer who traveled to Miami to build a demonstration there reported getting flooded with inquiries from fast food workers eager to participate.

Of course, the ULP designation did not totally prevent the bosses from retaliating against worker leaders who went out on strike or supported the effort. Jenny Brown, writing for Labor Notes, has described a "coordinated purge" currently underway at Walmart, initiated months after executives released a memo cautioning store managers against disciplining or firing workers. Workers are being retroactively disciplined for strikes and actions that took place last year in an effort to remove the leaders from their stores. So far, over 60 have been subjected to disciplinary processes or fired. Walmart has also ramped up hiring through staffing agencies in a move that would introduce even more hurdles to organizing.

Many of the fast food workers who struck experienced much more rapid retaliation from their bosses, with instant firings and cuts in hours. In response, the affected workers and their supporters turned this to their advantage in several scenarios by returning in numbers the next day, causing disruptions inside the restaurants until the worker was re-hired or hours were restored. These campaigns are demonstrating, more so than almost any other within the US labor movement, that direct action gets the goods.

"Times New Roman";mso-bidi-font-family:"Times New Roman"”>Building Intermediate Organizations

In between these actions, both campaigns have been building organizations that can keep workers plugged in for the long haul. Several thousand Walmart workers have signed up to join a "non-majority association," OUR Walmart, to stay connected to organizing efforts. Associations like OUR Walmart are particularly suited for workers excluded from or unable to collectively bargain for whatever reason, and non-majority organizations or unions have been utilized in other contexts, like campus workers in Tennessee and state employees in Texas (two efforts sponsored by the Communication Workers of America), where some demands have been won in recent years. Workers centers, like Austin, TX-based Workers Defense Project, have used a similar form of association to organize immigrant construction workers in conjunction with their campaigns against wage theft and lack of safety.

Through these non-majority organizations (so named because they do not represent a majority of the workers with the company), members have a space to discuss their concerns, develop their individual and collective capacities through trainings and workshops, and make plans for the next actions–just about everything but negotiating a contract! Similar to OUR Walmart, it appears that FF15 looks to sink roots by establishing cross-shop "organizing committees" in various cities where strikes and job actions have occurred. The strongest of these is the Workers Organizing Committee of Chicago (WOCC), which counts workers from over 100 different Chicago area employers in its membership.

In some cases, clusters of worker activists engaged in FF15 have won material concessions, including, but not limited to, pay raises. One Dunkin Donuts store finally installed air conditioning in response to a strike action. At a Chicago Whole Foods, workers won upgrades in the break room and defeated implementation of a points system that would enhance punishment of absences and lateness.

There are a few concessions at Walmart that organizers are claiming as victories. The company has promised more transparent scheduling and more opportunities for workers to get increased hours, and Walmart recently announced it would be hiring 35,000 new part-time workers and advancing 35,000 part-time workers to full-time. While OUR Walmart is attempting to hold the company to these promises, there is no pre-determined ceiling to what can potentially be won through struggle as these organizations grow broader and stronger.

Unfortunately, many unions provide the opposite experience for their full-fledged members. They may negotiate contracts (with ever declining leverage) and investigate the occasional grievance, but they do not encourage enough of their members to have discussions about their problems or provide political education. Most unions are run on a "service model," responding to members' concerns individually, at best–others are even worse, functioning as an appendage of the employer to provide a workforce with "added value," complicit in the exploitative management scheme (the building trades are especially guilty of this).

"Times New Roman";mso-bidi-font-family:"Times New Roman"”>Old Tactics, Rediscovered

Clearly, something very different is happening with these campaigns. The results of several years of work, whatever that will yield, could potentially re-write the organizing manual for both labor federations and affect many thousands of workers beyond the fast food and big box retail sectors. It's even getting a broad endorsement from the AFL-CIO, which made headlines at its recent convention in Los Angeles for expressing desire to bring all workers into the federation and thinking less single-mindedly about contracts with individual employers.

That said, there are many elements to these campaigns that are not at all new–non-majority associations, wildcats, and industry-wide organizing also belong to an earlier period in the labor movement, when working class radicals and socialists within the unions pushed for more militant tactics. Unfortunately, these tactics were left behind as the labor bureaucracy grew large enough to strike a bargain with capitalists during the post-war boom from the 1950s to the mid-1970s. Many of the radicals who had championed these approaches were thrown out in anti-communist purges and deemed irrelevant by a layer of the movement that became satisfied with their own relatively prosperous standing within the working class.

Why is the labor officialdom changing its tune after so many years on "experimental" organizing in some of the toughest sectors of the economy? In a single word: desperation. Though many labor leaders are content to ride into the sunset with their pensions, enough of them are coming to the conclusion that the very survival of the labor movement (and their standing within it) is absolutely dependent on a new surge in membership and broader social relevance. They are realizing that the tactics that "worked" in decades past are not going to ever gain traction in the current period marked by neoliberalism and austerity. Finally, they are slowly realizing that their one-sided partnership with the Democratic Party is not going to provide the sort of political transformation that will limit the ability of employers to flagrantly violate labor law or fight for an immigration reform that provides mass legalization–even under "ideal" conditions like the squandered Democratic majority in 2008.

Campaigns like these would have been unthinkable only a few years ago, except for the relatively small scale (but visionary) attempts of groups like the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) to organize Starbuck's and Jimmy John's workers. Still, these new campaigns–even with the support of relatively well-resourced international unions–are not without many challenges that extend beyond the resistance of the bosses.

Socialist and labor-oriented writers from various organizations and publications, including the International Socialist Organization (ISO), IWW, Kasama Project, Labor Notes, and In These Times, have contributed much to our understanding of where these present and future challenges lie [see collected links at the bottom of this page]. What follows is not meant to be a comprehensive response to these concerns, but simply a short list of items workers and activists close to these campaigns may want to consider in their efforts to provide support.

"Times New Roman";mso-bidi-font-family:"Times New Roman"”>How far will the unions take these fights?

The dominant concern expressed by sympathetic observers and critics regards the length to which the SEIU, UFCW, and labor federations are willing to go before throwing in the towel—whether as a “strategic retreat” after winning intermediate objectives, or the garden variety rout, to which we have become so accustomed. While it’s comforting to see these campaigns receive support from AFL-CIO convention delegates and UFCW members, who recently voted to increase their contributions to efforts at Walmart, FF15 seems to have a more uncertain future.

Labor Notes writer Jenny Brown has attempted to shed some light on what goals the SEIU might have for their fast food campaign, and it’s likely that these will depend on the amount of traction gained or lost over the next few months as they continue to branch out to new cities and strengthen existing organizing committees. SEIU President Mary Kay Henry has been vocal about the need for a raise in the minimum wage, a proposal flirted with by the Obama administration before it wasted considerable political capital on the push for war on Syria. So much for that option…

In several cities, Brown notes, the strikes were followed by a focus shifted toward mayoral elections. Progressive Democrat mayoral candidates like Bill de Blasio in New York City and incumbent Mayor Mike McGinn in Seattle have both expressed support for the campaign and have received endorsements in return from SEIU locals, which will likely be accompanied by FF15 staff and volunteer hours.

While it’s unlikely that the conclusion of these municipal elections will also mark the end of FF15, it’s worth pondering if the intent is to use the fast food campaigns as a way to inject new energy into the routine endorsements of Democrats (who have a lackluster record on these issues, to put it lightly) and their abortive national economic policy proposals.

Trish Kahle, a member of the ISO and worker at a Whole Foods in Chicago where workers struck several months ago, has expressed the concern that the legislative option like minimum wage increases could be “too fast-track.” Her assessment, that “[workers drawn into the campaign] need some sort of city-wide organization, where, for example, every organized fast-food store could be covered by the same contract…[including] the right to strike,” points to the need for deepening the ranks of activists in shops where FF15 has a presence, rather than simply utilizing the committees to support a lobbying effort or electoral mobilization for candidates of dubious quality.

As for the UFCW backing of the OUR Walmart–even with the increase in dues contributions and a great deal of money already sunk into the effort–its continuation is not one hundred percent certain. According to one close observer of developments at the UFCW, the leadership there has had to overcome resistance from more conservative elements within the union who view the Walmart campaign as “an unjustified drain on resources.” The top leadership of the campaign, composed of “Justice for Janitors” veterans, operates with a degree of autonomy from the UFCW bureaucracy, for better or (potentially) worse.

As with FF15, there’s not necessarily much clarity from the campaign about how it can be brought to a successful conclusion, or even what that might look like in concrete terms. Because Walmart’s retaliation has been more coordinated and fierce as of late, their immediate objective is to demonstrate that workers will continue to organize and fight, even in the face of the great risks. Much of the campaign’s effort seems directed at simply forcing Walmart to back off, something which could conceivably be formalized in some type of neutrality agreement (even as these come under attack from employers in the courts, potentially creating even more layers of uncertainty).

"Times New Roman";mso-bidi-font-family:"Times New Roman"”>Workers Self-Organization

Though both of these campaigns have relied heavily on alliances with other progressive organizations, demonstrations that have drawn in thousands more outside supporters than workers, and frequent press coverage, nothing would be possible without the core of worker-leaders within the FF15 organizing committees and OUR Walmart.

Unfortunately, the layer of leaders, activists, and supporters of organizing within targeted companies is still thin. It’s difficult to tell from the outside, but it appears that very few shops contain more than a few worker activists, and the strike actions have rarely involved more the one or two workers, even in cities where the campaigns are relatively strong. Some have noted at the scene of actions that paid union staff have almost always outnumbered the amount of participating workers.

Momentarily putting aside our excitement that these campaigns even exist, an important question has been raised as to how “real” any of this is–is it a “march on the media,” rather than a march on the boss? Is it simply “venture syndicalism,” utilizing militant tactics only up to the point of some negotiation, instead of a thoroughgoing commitment to organizing from the bottom-up? Is it possible that staff are depriving workers the important experience of exercising meaningful leadership by charting every next step in advance? [Some of these questions were raised by IWW member Adam Weaver here.]

Given the variation between different regions, cities, and shops, it’s impossible to provide one answer to any of these questions–however, they are worth asking, if we want to have a honest assessment of the where “our” side stands in relation to the bosses, and how prepared the most critical layer is to wage the battles ahead. As Amilcar Cabral’s famous reminder goes, we should “tell no lies, claim no easy victories.” The need to broaden this layer and deepen the level of experience and leadership among active workers is a pressing challenge within both of these campaigns.

"Times New Roman";mso-bidi-font-family:"Times New Roman"”>Where are the SEIU and UFCW members?

Achieving adequate scale to pressure any one of these employers to negotiate even just a neutrality agreement will likely rely on much more than simply developing worker activists with staff organizers, though. The unions cannot beat a company like Walmart or McDonald’s without a veritable army of dedicated, militant, and motivated organizers. Since both labor federations combined couldn’t possibly hire enough full-time staff to accomplish this task, where are these organizers to come from?

One suggestion might be to pull volunteer organizers out of the millions of union members—however, that’s a complicated prospect for today’s labor movement. While activating even a relatively small portion of these members would have an immense impact, it’s difficult to say how many of them would be able to contribute basic organizing skills, or—even more depressingly–be able to articulate the difference between Walmart and their own unionized workplace. To do this, union leaders would need to confront the profound alienation many members experience in relation to “their own” structures. This alienation is a rational response to the dominance of bureaucratic, ineffective, and top-down leaders, whose long-standing failure to activate members against their own bosses has resulted in the desperate situation in which the labor movement as a whole has found itself.

Perhaps this is why one notices so few UFCW members at OUR Walmart actions and (to a lesser degree) SEIU members at FF15 actions. If they are present, they are vastly outnumbered by paid staff. In more than a few occasions at OUR Walmart events, UFCW staff have responded to community supporter questions about boycotting Walmart with insistence that they spend their dollars with a “good employer like Kroger,” where their members’ spousal health care is currently being eviscerated in contract negotiations that will set a negative pattern for other unionized employers.

To activate union membership in a way that’s useful to the larger scale class battles being waged at big box retail and fast food, labor leaders and member activists may have to simultaneously bring the “Fight for 15” into their own unionized workplaces.

"Times New Roman";mso-bidi-font-family:"Times New Roman"”>New Opportunities for the “Labor Left”

Even amid great challenges, these campaigns open up new opportunities for radicals within the labor movement, particularly those who have personally not known a work environment that wasn't "precarious" (that is, almost anyone under 30 and most workers of color). Some have already been thinking about what a radical engagement with this movement would look like, beyond just occasionally showing up to demonstrations [see collected links below].

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The first—and most direct—way to get in the fight is as a worker. If you’re like many of my peers who are in their twenties and early thirties, you may already feel stuck in the world of low wage, casualized, and/or “precarious” work. If you’re already selling your labor power for a miserable wage, why not take a job with an employer targeted by one of these campaigns (or better yet, bring your current employer into the fight).

For the last few decades, most discussion of a “rank and file strategy” among radicals in the US revolved around the concept of obtaining jobs at already unionized shops and pushing for internal organizing and efforts to elect more responsive and militant leadership. With these jobs becoming less and less available to young activists, especially in the US South, the push behind these two campaigns provides an opportunity to “strategically” find a job–one that is actually available in most cities–with potential for political work.

There’s nothing more valuable than radicals in the workplace who can patiently and effectively agitate for action, and the presence of these campaigns, organizing staff resources, and existing workers’ committees in some cities makes it a (slightly) less Sisyphean task. If you don’t already know the organizers involved with OUR Walmart or FF15, contact OUR Walmart, the Making Change at Walmart Campaign, or your nearest SEIU local.

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mso-bidi-font-family:"Times New Roman"”>“Relational” organizing within the UFCW, SEIU, and “militant minority”
“We still have 14 million union members in this country. A more strategic approach to this would be a relational model, where you start with your members, and you chart all the organic relationships that your members have, and you begin with the workers themselves building off of existing social networks.” (See the full article here).

Beyond simply increasing the capacity of these campaigns, this is the best preventative measure against loss of interest among international staff and backlash from the sometimes less ambitious local unions. Better yet, steady updates about these campaigns could even generate discussions among SEIU and UFCW members–many of whom suffer from similarly low wages and lack of respect–about how they can initiate their own struggles for significantly improved contracts, utilizing some of the militant, worker-driven tactics of the Walmart and fast food workers!

Relational bonds also need to be built between these low wage workers and others who are connected to regional and national networks of rank and file activists–for example, the Labor Notes Troublemakers Schools, IWW initiatives, reform-oriented caucuses within the unions, workers centers, organizations of immigrant workers, and others.

It’s clear to any close observer that many of the workers going into motion through FF15 and OUR Walmart are experiencing a transformation of consciousness and are looking for new ways to understand and challenge the status quo, however mediated that might be through the bureaucratic structures of the unions. Whatever happens with these campaigns in the short-term, there is an opportunity here to build (quantitatively and qualitatively) that “militant minority” within the working class, especially where there are connections to other rank and file militants who are experiencing similar challenges and asking some of the same questions.