Will Labor Take the Wal-Mart Challenge? | The Nation


Will Labor Take the Wal-Mart Challenge?

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As the growing engagement of other unions in this discussion suggests, the UFCW cannot "stop" or change Wal-Mart alone. The task will demand the close cooperation and resources of other labor organizations. Asked what it will take to organize Wal-Mart, Ginny Coughlin of the textile union UNITE, which has recently begun organizing retail workers--but has no immediate plans to take on Wal-Mart--says, "I was just talking about this with a colleague the other day. We figured 3,000 organizers at a minimum. And all the resources, political will and leadership of probably four or five major unions." It is not inconceivable that this could happen: Labor leaders' recent rhetoric about greater cooperation between unions is more than talk. Several large unions are launching joint campaigns to organize low-wage workers. UNITE and HERE (the hotel and restaurant workers' union), for example, which are now in the process of merging, are working with the SEIU to organize employees at Sodexho, the nation's largest dining-services provider--which will involve more serious cooperation between labor organizations than we've seen in years. On May 12 prominent labor leaders held a meeting at SEIU headquarters to discuss the Wal-Mart problem, but partly because most people in the labor movement are preoccupied with defeating Bush, such dialogue is proceeding slowly.

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Liza Featherstone
Liza Featherstone is a journalist based in New York City. Her work on student and youth activism has been...

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In the latest action against the union-busting low-wage retailer, labor organizers may have finally found a strategy that works.

Ha llegado el momento en que demócratas y progresistas conscientes sigan el ejemplo de Nueva York y tomen distancia de este oscuro seductor.

Leonard, who ran the UFCW's Wal-Mart campaign for the past four years, thinks the "entire labor movement" should devote resources to helping Wal-Mart workers build a new, AFL-CIO-affiliated union "from the ground up." If other unions simply run a joint campaign against Wal-Mart, he argues, they are just going to drop out "as soon as they have their next big problem" affecting their own members' immediate interests.

International cooperation could be key to any Wal-Mart organizing strategy. As Andy Stern, just back from China, points out, "Wal-Mart is second only to our current President in unpopularity around the world" [see Carl Goldstein, "Wal-Mart in China," December 8, 2003]. Since Wal-Mart is an increasingly global company, fighting it invites potential for cross-border solidarity, especially in Germany, where many Wal-Mart workers are unionized and the company abides by a sectorwide agreement with a large retail union, and has been the target of pickets and warning strikes. In Britain some ASDA (British Wal-Mart) stores have shop stewards, but none of the workers are recognized as union members, or are covered by a collective-bargaining agreement. In Brazil Wal-Mart has had to reach agreement with unions on some workers' rights issues, while in Japan all of the company's workers are unionized, and Wal-Mart abides by an agreement reached with the stores' previous owner.

Many in the US labor movement believe that Wal-Mart requires a new organizing strategy. "There is no existing organizing model that unions have effectively employed to date that would organize this company," says Wade Rathke, who believes workers need a way to build their own institutions that is "not based on the permission of the employer."

Joel Rogers, a longtime social-justice activist and University of Wisconsin political scientist, agrees that the traditional model of organizing--by industry, with a focus on getting a majority vote in each shop, which under the law makes all the workers in that shop part of the union--cannot work for Wal-Mart. Rogers advocates an approach he calls "open-source unionism," in which workers could join unions even if the majority of their co-workers had not yet chosen to do so [see Richard B. Freeman and Joel Rogers, "A Proposal to American Labor," June 24, 2002]. Membership would focus on the individual, not the firm or job; a member could still belong to the union if and when she changed jobs. "It would be a kind of 'Wal-Mart Workers Association,'" says Rathke. This feature makes particular sense at a company like Wal-Mart, where turnover is so high. Under this model, employers could not insure that by defeating unions in elections, their workplaces would remain union-free. While these unions would lack collective-bargaining rights, members would receive advice from the union on how to protect their rights during disputes, and help in improving pay and working conditions through collective action. They would also benefit from alliances with community groups and other unions in putting pressure on their employer. Open-source unionism certainly needs re-branding, since only technologically knowledgeable geeks--most of whom are middle class--would understand that phrase, which derives from a term referring to the free exchange of software on the Internet. But it could provide a structure enabling workers' political activism, making it much easier for workers at companies like Wal-Mart to agitate to improve their situation, in cooperation with other workers.

This model isn't just a wonky abstraction. Though they may use different language to describe it, women and immigrants--including sweatshop workers in the United States and Latin America, and New York City taxi drivers--have been at the forefront of similar new organizational strategies. In her 2001 book Sweatshop Warriors: Immigrant Women Workers Take On the Global Factory, Miriam Ching Yoon Louie describes how garment workers have developed worker centers both to agitate for rights on the job and to develop political consciousness and become part of a larger social movement. These are, of course, much smaller-scale than a Wal-Mart Workers Association would be, but the principles--organizing without permission from employer or government, and affiliating with workers who are not in the same shop--are the same.

"It is essential that Wal-Mart workers have something like that," says Jane Collins, a professor of rural sociology and women's studies at the University of Wisconsin who has studied women's labor organizations in Latin American free-trade zones. Most Wal-Mart workers are women, and women--whether in Latin America or in immigrant communities in the United States--have been at the forefront of these new forms of organizing because, says Collins, they have been excluded, or poorly served, by the traditional unions. Similarly, Wal-Mart women find themselves in their current dismal position both as a result of mainstream labor's failure to recognize, early on, the importance of organizing low-wage retail workers and because of working-class women's historic--and ongoing--exclusion from unionized skilled trades.

"This might not work either," admits Rathke, of the Wal-Mart Workers Association idea. But it should be tried, he argues, because "we need a new strategy."

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