Labor Takes Aim at Walmart—Again
In October two shabby buses filled with Walmart employees stopped unannounced outside the company’s headquarters in Bentonville, Arkansas. As the employees filed into the building’s expansive parking lot, plainclothes private security personnel sporting sleek sunglasses and Walmart emergency response badges rushed in and swiftly corralled the employees onto a public sidewalk. Members of a new union-backed campaign to organize Walmart, the workers had come from around the country to ask Walmart’s CEO, Mike Duke, for better wages and better treatment.
The hoped-for meeting was not granted. Within minutes, a dozen Bentonville police officers rushed in to reinforce the security guards in forming a barricade between the employees and their headquarters’ front door. A labor relations representative emerged from the mostly windowless building. She announced that she would meet only with workers who carried Walmart employee discount cards in addition to their company badges and state IDs. Without discount cards, the protesting employees would be arrested.
“I didn’t come here today to go shopping, so why do I need my discount card?” said Girshriela Green, a young mother who until recently worked at Walmart in Southern California. “I feel totally disrespected. Shame on them for not having the common decency to sit down and talk to their own associates.”
This recent unrest in Arkansas—the second Bentonville action by the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW)–supported OUR Walmart group in a span of four months—is part of the widest effort yet to organize Walmart, the world’s largest private sector employer and the labor movement’s most intractable foe in the era of declining unionism. Over the past year, a loose coalition of labor groups has redoubled engagement with the retail giant in a series of campaigns using nontraditional organizing strategies—namely, the formation of informal groups of workers that are not union certified but attempt to assert themselves to management all the same. OUR Walmart, the largest initiative, focuses on the company’s retail stores. Another new campaign, Warehouse Workers United (WWU), focuses on logistics workers in Walmart-contracted warehouses in Southern California and is launching a lean effort to coordinate workers internationally along Walmart’s supply chain.
“A year ago, I would not have predicted this strategy of nonunion worker organization,” says Dorian Warren, a professor of public affairs at Columbia University. “I see it in the context of failed past strategies. It’s clear that you cannot run a formal NLRB election at Walmart. This PR strategy of beating Walmart over the head with bad publicity is reaching its limits. And frankly, when the Supreme Court struck down the Dukes case it became clear that the legal strategy was also reaching a dead end.”
Indeed, until recently it appeared that the labor movement was lying prostrate in its engagement with the Arkansas colossus—a company whose anti-unionism, both visionary and vicious, has triumphed at every turn. In 2000 the UFCW won an election at a small meatpacking unit at a Texas Walmart, only to learn that the company would dissolve all in-store meatpacking companywide. Five years later, an entire Quebec Walmart was shuttered just weeks after its employees voted to unionize. The fines the $400 billion company incurs from such boldly illegal retaliations are minimal compared with the potential cost of raising wages.
Such defeats notwithstanding, union leaders have decided that organizing retail in America is not feasible without first dealing with Walmart, a company that, more than any other on earth, sets labor standards across industries that feed its vast global supply chain. The core of Walmart’s low-price wizardry lies in its innovative mechanisms for minimizing labor costs, most often the number-one expense of production in low-end retail.
In recent years, as it has suffered dismal sales reports and turmoil in management, Walmart has doubled down on its strategy of suppressing wages and benefits for its 2.1 million employees. This is evidenced all the way from Bangladeshi garment factories, which maintain working conditions that verge on slavery to meet Walmart’s rock-bottom procurement prices, to sales floors across the Americas, where managers are given increasingly narrow budgets to pay staff, who make an average of around $8 an hour and often have to rely on government-funded food and healthcare programs.
“All along this company’s global supply chain we are seeing millions of workers in disparate work roles but who are facing the same issues: increasing precariousness, exploitation and the inability to democratically organize,” says an international organizer at WWU.
In this intense workforce squeeze, labor groups see an opportunity.
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In just over a year, OUR Walmart has signed up thousands of employees in hundreds of Walmarts in more than thirty states. Though not yet being seriously discussed, unionization remains an open, if distant, option. In launching the campaign, the UFCW sent hundreds of its members door-to-door to encourage Walmart employees to join the group, which requires a $5 monthly dues payment.
Organizers credit the group’s brisk expansion to the ditching of formal union drives, in which organizers must win a prescheduled election at a store. “Walmart is very effective in dealing with a classic union strategy, where there’s an election coming that it can plan around,” says Wade Rathke, the founder of ACORN. He helped organize Walmarts from Florida to California in an experiment with nonunion organizing beginning in 2004. “But when there’s no election coming, they don’t know how to deal with these noncertified workers’ associations.”
This nonelection route bypasses official forms of collective bargaining, which mandate that workers and management sit down to agree on compensation and hours. Instead, these worker associations bargain outside pre-established frameworks of negotiation, using any means legal to pressure management into recognizing their interests—an arrangement that closely resembles pre–New Deal unionism. With little institutional arbitration, this model can be seen as a rawer, more organic form of workplace struggle.
National labor law broadly protects nonunion worker activities, including collective actions and even nonunion strikes. “In a nonunion situation, the employers do not have to agree to what these groups demand, but if the employer retaliates, there is a right to file an unfair practice charge and the NLRB would enforce it,” says Lance Compa, a professor of labor relations at Cornell University.
OUR Walmart member Jackie Goebel took advantage of such unofficial channels of bargaining this past summer at her store in Kenosha, Wisconsin.
When she began as a cashier in 1988, Goebel saw Walmart as the small town’s most attractive workplace, one that she associated with the market-inspired humanitarianism of its founder, Sam Walton. More recently, Goebel’s satisfaction with her job has soured. In 2005 her daughter, a young mother who was a cashier at the same store, went to the doctor with troubling symptoms. The doctor diagnosed ovarian cysts and insisted she get a hysterectomy. In the fall of 2006, she approached Goebel and said she had ovarian cancer. “I asked her, ‘Why did you not have the hysterectomy when they first suggested it to you?’” Goebel recalls. “And she looked directly at me and said, ‘I was afraid if I took the time off they’d fire me.’” Goebel’s daughter died in 2007 at 37.
“I don’t hold Walmart culpable for my daughter having cancer,” says Goebel. “But she was living in this horrible fear of losing her job, and had she gone and gotten the surgery when the doctor suggested, it would have bought her years more with her kids.”
While coping with the consequences of Walmart’s well-documented practice of firing employees with medical issues, Goebel also began to notice that her manager was slashing wages while increasingly demanding that the workers perform task volumes she calls “not humanly possible.” Since its launch, the Kenosha OUR Walmart group has not grown impressively. It has eight members. Nonetheless, this past summer the small group confronted management to demand fair treatment and access to their employee files. Goebel had been the subject of unexplained disciplinary action, which she hoped her record would clarify. After she filed a complaint with her state labor department, the store’s management showed Goebel her file. “We still have a lot of work to do, but these little gains have helped considerably,” she says.
Numbers-wise, OUR Walmart has had more success in Southern California, where one member reports that more than half of her store’s 500 workers have joined the group. “Six months ago, under our old store manager, we were not treated with respect,” says Venanzi Luna, a department manager (department managers at Walmart still earn hourly wages and thus legally belong to nonmanagerial ranks). “So many people were unwillingly part time, our hours kept getting cut, and individual associates were expected to do the work of three. It was miserable.”
Over the summer, Luna took her human resources coordinator by surprise when she and twenty other OUR Walmart member employees walked into his office and demanded that the store’s top manager be fired. In short order, Bentonville flew in one of its labor relations specialists to discuss with employees how the workplace could be improved. Within a month, the unpopular store manager was quietly replaced with one more favorable to employees, and scheduling improved markedly. The store bumped several workers from part time to full time. The group, however, has had no success in seeking wage increases.
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