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.