Following last week’s unprecedented Black Friday strikes, the union-backed retail workers group OUR Walmart has identified two priorities for next month: aggressive pushback against alleged retaliation, and conversations with customers outside Walmart stores.
Organizers say over 500 retail workers struck in the several days leading up to and including Black Friday. That includes individual workers who went on solo strikes at their stores without previous contact with the campaign, as well as larger groups of employees at stores where workers have been organizing for months. Last month’s retail strikes drew about 160 workers, suggesting steady–though not exponential–growth (The Nation’s take on the strikes’ significance, and what it will take for them to grow, appears in the issue out today).
Colby Harris, who was the only worker to strike his Lancaster, Texas, store last month, said he was joined by at least ten co-workers this time. Harris told The Nation that another five or six workers signed up to join the organization since Black Friday, and “it seems like a lot more people are willing to take more actions the next time that we do that.” During the strike, said Harris, some of his non-striking co-workers “felt inspired, and then once they saw us return to work, it just gave them a little more confidence.”
During the holiday shopping season, OUR Walmart plans to communicate with Walmart customers about the company’s conditions. That includes internet outreach and face-to-face conversations with people entering and leaving stores. OUR Walmart so far has stopped short of calling on customers to boycott the company.
At the same time, OUR Walmart has pledged to defend workers it says have been punished for their activism. Along with discussing the allegations with customers, OUR Walmart plans to file a battery of new National Labor Relations Board charges against the company, and to form new rapid-response committees prepared to support workers facing future retaliation.
Both the customer engagement and the anti-retaliation strategy are designed to be ongoing programs that won’t center on a single day like Black Friday. But Harris said there’s also a major action planned for an unspecified date next month. He said to also expect “possibly more strikes, more walkouts, maybe some sit-ins, some picketing possibly. Just what we’ve always done, just at a higher volume, more frequent.”
Miami OUR Walmart activist Elaine Rozier said many of her co-workers are caught between a desire to fight back and a fear of being punished. She described one co-worker who showed up the Black Friday picket line, saw management nearby, and turned around and left in tears. “Hopefully we can just keep striking…” said Rozier. “I was hoping that we can do it once a week.”
“The level of illegal activity that happened leading up to Black Friday was unprecedented, and not like anything we’ve seen in the past three years,” said Dan Schlademan, the director of the allied group Making Change at Walmart. Schlademan, an official with the United Food & Commercial Workers union, is a key strategist behind the campaign. In the week leading up to Black Friday, Walmart began publicly stating that the strike was illegal and could have “consequences” for participants, workers reported being required to attend on-the-clock meetings in which they were lectured not to strike, and OUR Walmart alleges that individual managers made explicit threats to fire workers. Such tactics likely reduced last Friday’s turnout; in the D.C. area, for example, more workers reportedly struck earlier in the week than on Black Friday itself.
Harris said that in his store, “a lot of associates backed out” of striking after hearing Walmart Vice President David Tovar publicly mention possible “consequences.” “But we still had pretty strong turnout,” said Harris.
Since last Friday, Schlademan said, “Everyone has returned to work without issue. We’re hearing that right now things are very quiet and we haven’t heard of any retaliation happening. [But] we’re preparing and continue to assume that it will begin at some point, just given history.” Harris said that when he returned to work after the latest strike, a manager “was just trailing me the whole day.” He added that the same manager later questioned whether he was violating the dress code: “He said it looked like I had a black shirt on, even though it was clearly blue.”
Schlademan described Black Friday as “an incredible success.” He said the action had achieved each of its goals, including “to have workers respond to Walmart’s illegal retaliation by striking”; “to educate the public about Walmart and its treatment of workers”; “to change the debate about what’s happening with retail workers”; and to get “those who are inspired by what Walmart workers are doing to come out and demonstrate that they’re with Walmart workers.” Schlademan also said that “the growth of [OUR Walmart’s] leadership structure and the depths of its leadership” in recent weeks have laid “an amazing foundation for the future here.”
Harris said workers expect Walmart is “going to keep doing what they’re doing, in terms of retaliation, not listening, and denying the problems.” Nonetheless, said Harris “we’re definitely not finished. We’re just getting started.”
Employees across the service sector pay the true cost of our low-wage economy. Read Bryce Covert on the invisible struggle of domestic workers.