Protesters picket outside a Walmart store as holiday sales commence in San Leandro, California, November 22, 2012. Reuters/Noah Berger
The morning after Thanksgiving, as many Americans were sleeping or shopping, Walmart workers were striking. In Hanover, Maryland, a handful of strikers were joined by hundreds of supporters for an 8:30 am rally in the cold. Smiling, uniformed, ten-foot-tall cardboard cutouts of employees were emblazoned with the workers’ grievances: poverty wages, miserly benefits, dignity denied. The head of the labor group Jobs With Justice blasted Walmart for abusing workers and pushing public school privatization. Then the crowd marched, two-by-two and 400 strong, through a shopping-center parking lot. When they reached the outer edge of Walmart’s property, police were waiting to block them. “We’re just nervous,” said striker Barbara Elliot. “It’s new, what we’re doing, but we’re tired…We’re doing it for other generations, too.”
Labor strife at Walmart is nothing new. But in the retail giant’s half-century of existence, it’s never looked like this. On the heels of a series of failed organizing campaigns, unions and their allies are mounting the strongest-ever North American challenge to Walmart. The new campaign faces daunting odds and extreme versions of the hurdles facing US workers everywhere: employers on the warpath and labor laws tilted against employees. But with a new organizing strategy and a savvy focus on Walmart’s supply chain vulnerability, this attempt has come closer than any at forcing change from the dominant player in our economy—a necessary task if there’s ever to be a robust future for the US labor movement.
Even though Walmart employs just under 1 percent of the American workforce, most of us live in the Walmart economy. Its model has been forced on contractors and suppliers, adopted by competitors and mimicked across industries. That model includes a relentless squeeze on labor costs. In the United States, workers say they often skip lunch to get by on paltry wages. In Bangladesh, where in late November 112 workers died in a factory without outdoor fire escapes, NGOs blame Walmart for pushing deadly shortcuts.
The ruthless cost-cutting is sustained by fierce unionbusting. In an era when intimidation campaigns are routine, Walmart has set itself apart, responding to union victories by shutting down an entire store in Quebec and eliminating all its meat-cutting departments in the United States. American labor laws allow Walmart ample opportunities to crack down on organizing, from holding mandatory anti-union meetings to illegally firing union activists, with little risk of anything more than a slap-on-the-wrist fine and being required to post a notice promising not to break the law in the future.
In statements e-mailed to The Nation, Walmart defended its compensation as competitive, dismissed the recent strikes as publicity stunts, and said “there has not been any retaliation against associates who are expressing their views, nor will there be.”
It’s bad enough that our broken laws give companies nearly free rein to bully workers. But they also fail to keep a promise dating from the Wagner Act of 1935: that it is up to workers, not management, whether employees form a union and bargain collectively with their boss. Because the government-supervised union election process is rigged in favor of employers, and because companies can stonewall negotiations even if they lose elections, unions can’t be victorious unless they break the boss’s will to crush them.
That’s the challenge facing the Walmart campaign: to convince the world’s largest private employer that negotiating is less painful than unionbusting. The stakes are high, and not just for Walmart workers. Among the Black Friday picketers in Maryland was Felicia Miller, a deli clerk at a unionized Safeway. “The young people coming in—pay stinks because of Walmart,” Miller told me as she gathered with other union members at a United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) union hall to be bused to the rally. “The benefits package stinks because of Walmart…. Because our companies are saying, ‘If Walmart can get away with it, why can’t we?’”