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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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.”