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.
At the same time, organizing has also been underway over the phone and on the web. That’s true of worker organizing as well as the wide array of planned support actions planned by occupiers, unionists, feminists, and others. The website of the allied Corporate Action Network allows anyone to “adopt a store,” taking responsibility for staging an action there on Friday. Since setting up the feature, CAN spokesperson Brian Young said last week, “The surprise so far is the number of people who are adopting who we don’t know…. my strong suspicion is that some of them are [Walmart] workers.”
Days after Walmart retail strikers returned to work October 11, OUR Walmart held the first of a series of national conference calls, moderated by workers, designed to engage co-workers in the vast majority of stores that are yet to see a strike or protest. The campaign has also been connecting workers online over campaign websites and sites like Facebook.
“The idea that the way to organize Walmart ultimately is for non-union workers at these various locations around the country to take matters into their own hands makes sense,” said Burns, a negotiator for an airline union. “There’s just too many Walmart workers for these organizers from the various unions and their sponsored organizations to be able to organize. So if and when Walmart does organize, it’s going to have to be because of the self-organization of workers.”
Organizers hope social media helps activate leaders who—despite being in cities with no prior Walmart activism or pre-established OUR Walmart leaders—are prepared to strike and bring co-workers out with them. Sites like Facebook have also helped OUR Walmart to discover cities, and leaders, that deserve to start getting staff attention.
One of them is Cory Parker. A 23-year-old Tupelo, Mississippi worker, Parker said he lost his house because of Walmart’s low wages, only to have a manager tell him, “Why don’t you just go and live at a homeless shelter?” “I was already trying to start a movement in our store,” said Parker. So when a co-worker sent him a message on Facebook pointing out OUR Walmart’s page, “from the very first time I read that…I had set my mind to, ‘This is what I need to do.’”
The Facebook page led Parker to an OUR Walmart conference call moderated by Mary Pat Tifft, a long-time OUR Walmart leader in Wisconsin. “She spoke directly to me,” said Parker. After he spoke up on the call, she found him on Facebook and arranged a one-on-one phone conversation. Since then, OUR Walmart has sent organizers to Mississippi to help Parker organize Tupelo workers for the strike.
Parker said that the web has also helped him withstand intimidation. After he became more vocal at work, he said, management tried to discourage him with group “captive audience” meetings and one-on-one threats. Parker said he discusses these experiences on Facebook with Walmart worker activists in other states who’ve experienced the same thing. “They will actually tell me it is OK to be scared,” said Parker, and they help ensure that “I don’t lose my sight.”
Under a framework where organizing requires “intense and personal” face-to-face connections, said Getman, “This really shouldn’t work that well. And yet, who knows? I certainly have a feeling that it has to be tried on a great scale to find out.”