As I was writing this blog post on Sunday morning, news came from the Associated Press about the real human cost of our Black Fridays:
“DHAKA, Bangladesh (AP) — At least 112 people were killed in a fire that raced through a multi-story garment factory just outside of Bangladesh's capital, an official said Sunday. Bangladesh has some 4,000 garment factories, many without proper safety measures. The country annually earns about $20 billion from exports of garment products, mainly to the United States and Europe. Bangladesh's garment factories make clothes for brands including Wal-Mart, JC Penney, H&M, Marks & Spencer, Carrefour and Tesco.”
Walmart stocks up on products manufactured under deadly sweatshop conditions. It organizes Black Friday sales knowing they can touch off riots in their stores. Then Walmart sends security guards and police after peaceful demonstrators who only seek justice in the global workplace. Who said irony is dead?
I didn’t hear of any Black Friday shopper nastiness in Chicagoland, but there were a number of peaceful demonstrations against Walmart and other retailers who exploit and abuse their own employees and supply chain workers around the world.
My Black Friday began at around 4:30 am with a drive from my home in Oak Park to Bedford Park, a suburb south of Midway Airport. The United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) had rented a hotel meeting room there as a staging area for Walmart protestors, plus buses to carry them to several Chicagoland Walmart stores and eventually to downtown to support food and retail workers there.
It was dark and deserted within the complex of hotels, but when I found the yellow school buses, I knew I was in the right place. Once in the lobby, a UFCW staffer saw me and guided me to their meeting room where staff people were already giving away lime-green Our Walmart tee shirts, buttons and signs. About 30 people were there drinking coffee and munching on donuts.
By 5:30 numbers had grown and people were spilling out into the hallway. Our Walmart members (the organization of Walmart associates), mingled with their supporters as a long line formed to sign up for the various buses, all of which had somewhat different destinations.
At around 6:00 am the order came to move out to the buses. I had forgotten my bus number so I ended up on the wrong bus, figuring that I could straighten that out later. Then we were off to the Chatham Walmart on Chicago’s South Side. During the CTU teachers’ strike, teachers on the picket line at Simeon Career Academy had joined with Warehouse Workers for Justice and Our Walmart for a march that actually entered the Walmart store for about 15 minutes before marching out again.
I doubted that would happen today though. We had taken them by surprise the first time.
The South Side Chicago Chatham Walmart
Upon arriving at the Chatham Walmart we piled out of the buses and formed up on a grassy area next to the access road to the Walmart store. We chanted slogans like “Whose Walmart? Our Walmart!” and “Walmart! Walmart! You’re no good. Treat your workers like you should!”
Some people sang some cleverly rewritten Christmas carols critical of Walmart. Spirited chanting and singing helped us ignore “The Hawk”, as Chicagoans call that bitter cold wind that was cutting through our outerwear.
Media people were busy interviewing individuals but only a few outlets actually quoted the Walmart employees who were present.
WGN TV: “They retaliate by black listing us, telling other associates not to associate with us, shortening our working hours, all the way up to termination." —-Walmart employee Charmaine Gibens Thomas. "
WBEZ Radio: "The rest of the country has started to take notice of the plight of the Wal-Mart workers. This is America. Everyone should be able to work one job and make a decent livable wage."—-Walmart employee Marie Kanger-Born
Truth-Out: "I know there are other Walmart workers in there that feel like me, but they are just terrified of retaliation because Walmart told them that if you walk off, you will be terminated immediately.I want to let them know if I can do it, get up and speak up about what you deserve. We work hard, we get here on time, we do what we got to do. I feel very proud to do this, and once I return I'll tell them about it."—- Walmart employee Tyrone Robinson
It wasn’t long before we marched toward the Walmart store. There were about 300 of us in front of the store where the demonstration organizers divided us into two groups so we would not actually block the entrance. There was a modest number of shoppers inside and plenty of empty spaces in the parking lot.
In front of the Chatham Walmart
After more chanting and singing, we returned to the buses as Susan Hurley of Jobs With Justice held a press conference.
“We are very proud to stand in solidarity with Walmart warehouse workers and retail stores like the one we are standing in front of right now. Today is a national day of action. We need to change Walmart to change our economy and change our country. If Walmart perpetuates the standards they have been setting throughout our economy then we are all in trouble.”
Phil Bailey also spoke and talked about the victory of the Walmart warehouse workers in Elwood IL who won safety improvements and 21 days of backpay after their strike. Bailey pointed out that they had stood up for their rights and forced management to respect them,”They didn’t want to, but we made ‘em….We’re with you. Warehouse workers in Elwood IL are standing up for Walmart workers all over the country.”
My bus was full, so I found another that was bound for the Bedford Park Walmart, the Evergreen Park Walmart and then downtown to join with retail workers who were asking for a $15 an hour minimum wage.
Heavy winds at the Bedford Park Walmart
When we arrived at the Bedford Park Walmart, we unfurled our banner and straining against the stiff breeze, tried to march to the store.
The Bedford Park police halted our procession about half way across the parking lot and directed us back to an access road where we leafleted cars and chanted. Truck drivers blew their horns in support as they passed on Cicero Avenue behind us.
Then it was back to the buses and on to Evergreen Park. On the way, the bus driver did thoughtfully stop at McDonalds for a restroom break. I bought one of those greasy $1 MacDonald's hash browns because I believed the sign saying the bathroom was for paying customers only.
Of course when I walked over there, the guys from my bus were helpfully holding the door open for the next one in line. The women were doing the same thing. That was my only Black Friday purchase. I ate the greasy thing and was punished for it with a case of indigestion. Serves me right.
Shoppers blocked from entering the Evergreen Park Walmart parking lot
At the Evergreen Park shopping plaza I saw my first evidence of police over-reaction. No, they were not lined up in riot gear looking like the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Instead their cop cars were blocking all of the entrances to the parking lot so our bus could not enter. That it also blocked customers from entering didn’t seem to bother them. The bus driver parked across the street and we marched across 95th Street behind our banner to the public property near one of the entrances.
The cops let us stay there, but they continued to partially block the entrances with their police cruisers. One large enterprising fellow in our group began making arm motions when cars slowed in front of us, as if he were directing traffic. He would then yell in a loud authoritative voice, “Walmart’s closed today. Strike!” The sight of him along with the cop cars close by, seemed to convince some customers to actually drive on.
After about an hour, it was back to the bus where the organizers passed out some crackers and bananas for snacks as we headed for downtown to join retail workers and their allies who called themselves the Workers Organizing Committee of Chicago (WOCC). Their campaign is called “Fight for 15”, meaning a minimum wage of $15 an hour. WOCC is affiliated withAction Now and StandUp Chicago, both of which are coalitions of labor and community groups.
Some thoughts on the Walmart Black Friday action
Our driver lost her way up to the North Side church where we were supposed to meet the WOCC people, so I had some time to reflect on the morning’s activities. I did not expect large numbers of Walmart workers to strike on Black Friday so I wasn’t disappointed that only a few did. I was hoping for a decent sized protest and that mission was accomplished.
I had thought that calling for a “strike” was a mistake and I wondered whose idea that was. Our Walmart had been very cautious up to this point. It’s true that there have been some local mini-strikes of Walmart associates, but a nationwide strike had seemed like an unrealistic goal to me. I wondered what impact the Black Friday protests would have on Our Walmart’s organizing. Looking on the bright side, they showed Walmart associates that they had support from a determined minority of Walmart workers as well as support from outside allies.
I also wondered about Our Walmart’s relationship to the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW). The UFCW has had checkered history when it comes to union democracy and although I think it’s a good idea for Our Walmart to have the UFCW backing them them, it’s important that they maintain local autonomy and make decisions democratically. I’ve come to believe that this is the only way to maintain longterm solidarity, though there are times under class war conditions when command decisions must be made.
I kept these thoughts to myself as airing them in the middle of a major action seemed inappropriate.
Strolling down the Magnificent Mile with signs and banners
Once at the church near Michigan Avenue’s “Magnificent Mile” of posh shops and expensive tourist traps, we lined up to sign in with WOCC and receive our tee shirts, signs, buttons and tote bags. The tote bags were a nice touch, useful for carrying the message into downtown stores. There were bagels, toppings, juice and coffee for lunch while we waited for the afternoon activity. When everyone was signed in and the bagels were nearly depleted, we got our orders.
We would march up to Water Tower Place, an upscale multi-floor shopping mall with “see-around” glass elevators and tony specialty shops. I used to take my young daughter there just to ride the glass elevators up and down. There were several “inside teams” who would go ahead of us and slip into Water Tower Place looking like ordinary holiday shoppers. They were armed with signs and leaflets hidden in their bulky cold weather clothes.
We walked up the Michigan Avenue sidewalk waving our our signs, passing out leaflets and reciting our chants. Most shoppers either smiled at us or ignored us with no obvious signs of hostility. To the tourists, I guess we were just part of the Chicago scene. I was often near the lead organizer who was constantly on his cell phone communicating with the people inside of Water Tower Place. Several times he had us slow down to give the inside teams more time.
At Water Tower Place about 200-300 of us marched around on the crowded sidewalk slowing down the foot traffic of shoppers. The high point for me was when three kids aged about 10-14 watched us for a few minutes than joined the protest as I gave them a friendly wave and made a place for them on the picket line.
While taking a break to shoot a few pictures, I heard loud cheering. The inside teams were exiting the store. I rushed over to the revolving door and recorded some video on my pocket camcorder as they emerged. While inside they had done a banner drop and distributed leaflets to shoppers. Each team timed their actions in such a way as to keep the action going as long as possible.
We greeted them with unrestrained enthusiasm as each came out. There were a lot of cops around but they seemed either bored or bemused by the whole scene.
When we left, the cops accompanied us back to the Museum of Contemporary Art where the remaining demonstrators posed for pictures being taken from atop the stairs.
My bus was there, so I climbed aboard and had a pleasant ride chatting with my bus mates as we returned to the UCFW staging area at the Bedford Park hotel. There was a fireplace in the hotel where several of the organizers were gathered. I joined them. The warmth and the companionship were very welcome after a long day of protests and Chicago weather.
The Workers Organizing Committee of Chicago
That night I looked at the Workers Organizing Committee of Chicago website in an effort to understand them better. They had called a public meeting a few days earlier and now I wished I had attended. I hope that the rank and file workers have a strong democratic structure and maintain reasonable autonomy from any parent group. WOCC is focused on the downtown food and retail workers who feed and cloth the city and its visitors. Below is their message to employers:
“It’s time for you to do the right thing by your workers, and by the City of Chicago. Pay all your workers at least $15 an hour so that they can meet their basic needs for shelter, food, clothing, and medical care. Together, we are Fighting for 15—the lowest hourly wage that will cover our basic needs. In turn, workers will spend that money in order to take care of their families, creating new jobs and reducing crime and improving neighborhoods as a result. The entire city will benefit.”—-from ABOUT THE CAMPAIGN
WOCC protests on Chicago's Magnificent Mile
I recalled the old City Hall propaganda about how tourism and convention crowds were supposed to provide the jobs lost when unionized industry was shut down in the 1980’s. The steel mills and mass production factories could be tough, even dangerous places to work in, but the money was good and many Chicago industrial workers could afford a middle class lifestyle that rivaled that of white collar office workers.
However today’s workers in big box stores and downtown shops and eateries can find themselves living in desperate poverty, dependent upon food stamps and Medicaid just to survive. This is happening right here in Chicagoland, no longer an industrial giant, but still a major player in the global financial markets and still the ”Player with Railroads and the Nation's Freight Handler” that Carl Sandburg wrote about in his poem Chicago.
“There’s something happening here. What it is ain’t exactly clear…”
Our Walmart, Warehouse Workers for Justice and the Workers Organizing Committee of Chicago are part of nationwide movement of many organizations seeking to improve the lives of low wage workers who keep our economy running, but receive little back for their efforts. Many of these workers are immigrants and people of color, who must carry the burden of discrimination along with that of class exploitation. But they are fighting back with great courage and savvy against the ruthless global elite that our local Chicago 1% belongs to.
No one knows how successful this current movement for justice will be. No one knows if current tactics and organizing models can turn back the immense power of companies like Walmart. You find out by taking risks and always evaluating and evolving. Perhaps the Black Friday protests will be remembered as one of the beginnings of a great social movement. There is no way to predict.
But there is one certainty. If there is exploitation, there will be resistance. Each act of resistance builds upon the successes and failures of the previous ones. A luta continua. The struggle continues.
Walmart protests are throwback to pre-union days by Mark Guarino
Retail workers protest low wages, get inside Macy’s and Water Tower by Stephano Esposito
Walmart protests draw crowds, shoppers largely unfazed by Emily Bryson York