No one knows just how many Walmart workers will walk off the job on Friday—organizers included. Labor officials involved in planning the Black Friday strike say they won’t know until it happens exactly who’ll show up. Not just because of the inherent uncertainties of high-risk organizing, but also because they expect that some workers will strike who’ve only ever interacted with the main campaign groups over the Internet.
“We’re not trying to do this in the completely traditional way of, ‘know your numbers,’” said Dan Schlademan, a United Food & Commercial Workers union official who directs the allied group Making Change at Walmart, in an interview earlier this month. “This is really about doing open-sourced organizing…The total of what happens, we’re not going to really know it until Black Friday.”
Asked whether, given the serious risks involved in striking, he expected that workers who’ve never had a face-to-face conversation with an OUR Walmart worker leader or organizer would join the strike, Schlademan said, “Absolutely.” Given the size and geographic distribution of Walmart’s 1.4 million member workforce, Schlademan said that the alternative to embracing long-distance organizing would be to deny hundreds of thousands of workers the chance to take part.
Long-time labor leaders and scholars say that the coming strike’s use of Internet organizing offers an experiment worth watching.
“Certainly if you look at labor history, there’s plenty of examples where workers go out on strike because they see other workers going out on strike,” said Joe Burns, the author of Reviving the Strike. “That’s why strikes tend to happen in strike waves, whether it’s workers in the ’30s or public employees in the 1960s. Whether or not they can re-create that here, I guess we’ll have to see.” Burns said that while “organizing is still about to face-to-face contact,” in an age when workers can connect with unseen co-workers over Facebook, “the power of example is easier to find.”
“My reaction is really mixed,” said University of Texas Law Professor Jack Getman, the author of Restoring the Power of Unions: It Takes a Movement. “On one level,” he said, social media “doesn’t add up as a great device for organizing, which requires, we believe, one-on-one contact and all of that. On the other hand, we look at places like Tahrir Square…Maybe it’s a generational thing.”
Amy Dean, the former president of California’s South Bay Labor Council, argued that in OUR Walmart’s campaign, social media “is being used in service to creating community for people in a workforce that is spread out globally…. They’re right to be utilizing every tool possible, because much of what this campaign hinges on is its ability to make people feel as though they are in relationship” with each other. Dean, a fellow at the Century Foundation, noted that social media is not “a replacement for doing the hard work of establishing one-on-one relationships,” but credited the campaign for “using those tools to create these relationships.”
The campaign—organized through groups including Making Change and the UFCW-backed retail workers group OUR Walmart—is employing a range of organizing tactics in an effort to pull off historic turnout. Schlademan said last month that the first two retail work stoppages had been “a strike of leaders,” and that each of the 160 workers who participated would spend the ensuing month organizing more employees to join them on Black Friday. Workers have been talking to co-workers on the job, meeting them at home, and visiting other Walmart stores on their days off to drum up support.