Labor Takes Aim at Walmart—Again
Thirty miles east of Luna’s store lies the largest concentration of warehouses on earth and the site of another innovative Walmart-focused organizing effort. This is the Inland Empire, the logistical heart of America’s leading big box retail companies, Walmart foremost among them. Nearly half of America’s containerized imports—mostly from factories in China and Southeast Asia—are pumped through the ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles, into the Inland Empire’s sprawling distribution centers clustered throughout the exurban galaxy of San Bernardino County, and then are trucked out to the retail shelves of every town in America.
The more than 100,000 warehouse workers who move these goods offer an extreme case of America’s decades-long trend toward a flexible workforce. Supplied with a vast army of “permanent temps”—who are sourced on daily notice through the region’s more than 400 temp agencies but work continuously at the same job sites for years—warehouse operators in the Inland Empire have enjoyed near impunity in matters of wage theft, illegal firings and denying Workers Compensation claims. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, warehousing is one of the country’s most dangerous work environments. “There are dangers in the warehouse because we are pressured to work so quickly. We all work with open scrapes bleeding,” one temp worker, currently at a Schneider Logistics warehouse, one of the country’s largest shipping firms, told me through an interpreter. “I have an injured co-worker who works all day limping. These are just everyday injuries.”
The Inland Empire’s workforce transience makes traditional approaches to organizing impossible.
In 2008 Change to Win Federation launched an ambitious and unorthodox drive to organize these warehouse workers. “I wouldn’t even call this a model,” said Nick Allen, lead organizer of the campaign. “We are trying to do what we know works, and it’s rooted in mobilizing workers in the communities where they live and work.” WWU knocked on doors in the region’s poorest neighborhoods and established a worker center to provide basic educational and legal services.
As this effort grew to include thousands of warehouse workers, organizers realized how fundamentally Walmart’s influence shapes the region. “These warehouses are as bad as it gets in terms of working conditions in America,” said Allen. “Walmart largely pioneered this system and still sets the standards. We feel it’s important for the biggest player to be held accountable for the conditions in this industry. Our goal is to raise standards throughout the industry and bring workers from shitty, minimum-wage temp jobs to decent jobs.” In 2010 WWU shifted its resources to focus primarily on Walmart-contracted warehouses.
WWU workers have engaged in collective activities similar to those of OUR Walmart. In October the group filed a class-action wage theft suit against Schneider Logistics, a major warehouse subcontractor for Walmart. Weeks later, a federal judge placed a temporary restraining order on the company, demanding that Schneider improve its payment system while the litigation proceeds.
Across the Pacific Ocean from Los Angeles, WWU is quietly pursuing an international project in which organizers are looking at all points of Walmart’s supply chain on multiple continents. A key goal of the effort is to raise awareness about Walmart among workers—many of whom work in factories not technically owned by Walmart but that the company in effect controls. “We are building on the fact that these workers are either manufacturing, transporting or selling goods for the same giant retailer,” says Allen. “Most workers understand this pretty well, but what they haven’t had the opportunity to do is to connect with other workers along the supply chain.” Organizers will not disclose what actions the network will take if it grows large enough to gain some leverage against the company.
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in 2005 the UFCW and the Service Employees International Union spearheaded a large-scale PR campaign that linked a coalition of progressive groups to generate outrage over Walmart’s retrograde business practices. The UFCW poured millions of dollars into the web-based Wake Up Walmart (now Making Change at Walmart), while the SEIU funded Walmart Watch. The wave of negative press put the company on the defensive and scored the coalition some concrete wins. Walmart invested billions in repackaging itself as green and socially responsible—going so far as to enlist the full-time help of prominent Democratic strategist Leslie Dach. To the dismay of the US Chamber of Commerce, Walmart supported Obama’s healthcare bill and more than doubled its tiny fraction of campaign contributions going to Democratic candidates. Especially in environmentalism and health food, Walmart made a genuine, if tactical, stab at improvement, which succeeded in mollifying many activists.
Organized labor, however, reached no such détente with the big-box goliath. “We listen to all of our critics, because a lot of times they have legitimate concerns,” said Mona Williams, a Walmart spokeswoman. “But unions are not in that category.”
Thus, labor saw its coalition divided, and is now largely on its own in engaging the company. But the UFCW dug in, substantially increasing its Walmart-devoted budget to fuel the current push.
Even so, some question whether the UFCW is serious about committing to a long-term organizing campaign, or whether OUR Walmart boils down to a new and sophisticated tool of the union’s ongoing publicity campaign against Walmart. “The big question here is, What does this campaign define as success?” says Nelson Lichtenstein, who teaches at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and is one of the foremost experts on Walmart. “I think success to them would be to enroll a few thousand workers to speak out, make a bunch of noise and generate bad publicity. This seems to me an extension of what they’ve been doing for quite some time. Although when workers begin to feel unafraid to publicly speak out—that is a crucial moment of any organizing campaign, and its significance can hardly be overstated.”
In October in Bentonville, the Making Change at Walmart group, which helps support OUR Walmart, hosted a panel discussion of Walmart workers and managers to provide critical perspectives to stock analysts in town from New York and Europe for meetings with Walmart executives the following day. The first of its kind, the meeting seemed to achieve its aims, but a telling moment came when the panel was pressed on OUR Walmart’s long-term prospects. “Unless you’re getting to a point where you’re striking at the store level,” asked Dan Binder, an analyst at Jefferies, “how do you plan to implement real change?” Binder repeated the question, getting only vague invocations of worker solidarity. Eventually, Dan Schlademan, director of Making Change at Walmart, piped in: “At the end of the day, it’s not about what this group is going to do—it’s really about how Walmart decides to respond to this group.”
This language, striking in its passivity from a union official, points to a central departure of this organizing approach.
OUR Walmart must balance dual roles: it needs the aggressive offense of trade unionism to effectively pressure the company; yet in order to appeal to many conservative-leaning, union-skeptical Walmart workers, and to evade the company’s advanced union avoidance tactics, it also must embody features of an amorphous, business advocacy group out to help Walmart make the right decisions for itself. Perhaps the most impressive feat yet of OUR Walmart is its ability to play both roles.
“This sort of experimentation is what labor needs most right now,” says Ruth Milkman, associate director of the Murphy Institute at CUNY. “I couldn’t think of a better way to go about doing this, but the proof will be in the pudding.”
Many in the labor movement are closely watching the renewed fight for workers’ rights at Walmart. Big box retail is a potential springboard for unions seeking to bolster dwindling ranks. Globalization devastated America’s manufacturing workforce. Retail jobs, in contrast, largely cannot be outsourced. Any success with these experiments could enable a broader wave of organizing in what is becoming America’s largest sector of employment. On one thing, labor experts and officials agree: to succeed, the Walmart efforts will require tremendous outlay.
“If they really want to get this to scale—where you have 100,000-plus members and finally see a big impact on the company—it will take an incredible commitment of time and money,” says Wade Rathke. “Organizing is hard.” But, he adds, “Walmart workers are ready—that’s the easy part.”