This morning, at 10 am local time, Dallas Walmart store workers are headed back to the picket line. Theirs is the latest in a string of strikes that hit a California warehouse Wednesday and Seattle stores on Thursday. There’s more where that came from: On a Thursday call with reporters, union-backed Walmart worker groups said to expect a thousand strikes or demonstrations spread over nine days, culminating in an unprecedented array of “Black Friday” disruptions. That news follows a major legal settlement by a Walmart contractor that organizers credited to a 2011 sit-in at Hershey’s Chocolate.
Dallas striker Colby Harris emphasized that despite issues with low pay and repeated retaliation, he’s committed to remaining a Walmart worker. “If you leave this job, you’re going to face retaliation in some form somewhere else…,” he said last night. “If you change Walmart, and you change corporate America, it can really better a lot of people’s lives.”
Harris told The Nation that the main purpose of today’s picketing outside his Dallas store is to send a message to the workers inside: that “you can speak up and not get punished.” What if Walmart retaliates? “We’ll just take more actions…,” said Harris. “It will not be accepted or tolerated.” He said that going on strike last month heightened his confidence: “I’m not as nervous to take actions now. I know I’ve done it before…I can do it again.”
In an e-mailed statement Thursday, Walmart called the coming strikes “just another exaggerated publicity campaign aimed at generating headlines to mislead our customers and associates.” It asserted that “many of these ongoing tactics being orchestrated by the UFCW are unlawful and we will act to protect our associates and customers from the ongoing illegal conduct.” That contrasts with interviews last month in which company spokespeople explicitly referred to workers’ strikes as “legal” (though never as “strikes”). Walmart did not specify what crimes it was alleging. But the statement (also sent to MSNBC) could be a harbinger of further legal maneuvers, be they trespassing charges against activists, racketeering suits against the unions backing the workers’ groups, or appeals to judges to restrict the scope or targets of the pickets.
Sarah Gilbert, one of about twenty retail workers who struck her Seattle store yesterday, said the experience was “awesome. We didn’t really know at first how many people were going to be involved, but the closer we got, it just got bigger and bigger.” Gilbert said that two of her co-workers worked the first part of their shift but changed their mind during their break and walked into the store, clocked out and told their managers they were joining the strike. Seattle workers also held a pre-strike early Thanksgiving dinner Wednesday night, a reaction to Walmart’s decision to require workers to come in two hours earlier this year than last Thanksgiving.
Gilbert told The Nation that she first joined OUR Walmart when her outrage at an abusive manager overcame her fear of being targeted. She said her manager constantly belittled her in front of her co-workers and “actually pulled up my pants one day at work…. I would come home angry every day.” When she saw her manager’s car in the parking lot each morning, Gilbert said, “it ruined my whole day.” When the harassment continued after she tried to resolve the issue through Walmart’s “Open Door” policy, “it gave me the courage to stand up for myself, because I did what they told me they wanted me to do first to make things better, and it didn’t get better.”
As Seattle workers were launching their one-day strike yesterday, Mira Loma, California, warehouse workers were holding a strike rally with community supporters, six of whom were arrested for blocking the street in civil disobedience. According to OUR Walmart, one of them was the Reverend Eugene Boutilier, who told the assembled workers, “Your efforts benefit all working people.” Following the rally, striker Chris Allen told The Nation, “I think they got the message, because higher management came out to see what was going on in front of the warehouse. I think we’ve got their back against the wall. But we’re not stopping.” The Mira Loma workers return to work today. A group of retail workers in San Leandro, California, also walked off the job for part of Wednesday, holding a vigil at which they mourned the recent death of a co-worker.
“I think what’s going on now in the California area isn’t even the tip of the iceberg of what will happen on Black Friday,” said Gilbert.
Dan Schlademan, a United Food & Commercial Workers union official who directs the allied group Making Change at Walmart, told reporters that strikes are planned in cities including Chicago, Dallas, Los Angeles, Miami, Milwaukee, and Washington, DC, and states including Oklahoma, Mississippi, Louisiana and Minnesota. Schlademan said that organizers aren’t publicly announcing which stores are involved because that could provide grist for Walmart’s allegedly illegal campaign to suppress participation.
These latest strikes follow news of a strike-forged victory against a Walmart contractor. On Wednesday, the National Guestworker Alliance celebrated a legal settlement reached between the Labor Department and the logistics company Exel, which operates warehouses employing guest workers for several major companies. While the agreement concerns unpaid wages owed to workers at Hershey’s Chocolate, it also requires Exel to implement new labor protections at all of its US warehouses—some of which it runs for Walmart. These new rules include more direct responsibility for the conduct of sub-contractors and temp agencies, terms that NGA wants to see Walmart impose on all of its contractors (Walmart did not respond to an inquiry regarding the breadth of its contract with Exel). In an interview with The Nation Thursday, NGA Executive Director Saket Soni called the settlement “incredibly significant.”
NGA is the same organization that spearheaded a summer strike against the Walmart supplier C.J.’s Seafood. There, like at Hershey’s, workers struck over alleged extreme and illegal conditions. Soni said that a common scofflaw contractor isn’t all that connects the labor struggles in Walmart’s and Hershey’s supply chains. “The phenomenon of large corporations like Walmart and Hershey deciding to subcontract all of their warehousing and distribution work by definition leads to these kinds of abuses,” he said. Soni credited this week’s settlement to the courage of Hershey’s workers who, like Walmart workers this week, took a risk by going on strike. “They leapt from the plant floor onto the cover of The New York Times,” said Soni, “and into the world’s imagination.”