Walmart Strike, October 4, 2012. (Photo courtest of Flickr user Matt Hamilton. Licensed under Creative Commons.)
After a parade of drummers, umbrella-twirlers and elephant puppets—and before Walmart’s US president called a couple employees up on stage for on-the-spot promotions—striking Walmart worker Janet Sparks was granted three minutes to address the company’s June 7 shareholder meeting. Her eyes alternating between her typed speech and the thousands of stock-owners and co-workers packing Bud Walton Arena, Sparks dissented from Walmart’s star-studded celebration of itself. Reading nervously but steadily, Sparks described a company that understaffed, underpaid and over-relied on temps.
“So when I think about the fact that our CEO Mike Duke made over $20 million last year,” she said, “more than 1,000 times the average Walmart associate, with all due respect, I have to say I don’t think that’s right.”
A handful of co-workers—fellow members of the union-backed group OUR Walmart—cheered from the bleachers. A few sentences later, when Sparks contrasted Duke’s bonuses with the sparse and paltry ones paid out in her Louisiana store, a few attendees elsewhere tried to start a chant of “USA! USA!” Then, as Sparks asked “if you can honestly say our company is doing the best we can for customers and associates…” Walmart Board Chairman Rob Walton cut in to tell her that her three minutes were up. Soon after, the window for Walmart critics to present shareholder resolutions had closed, and the company was back in control of the day. The hall was bathed in pink and blue lights as musician Prince Royce crooned “Stand By Me.”
(Disclosure: I requested media credentials for the meeting but was denied by Walmart; I obtained access to the arena using shareholder proxy authorization from the Neighborhood Economic Development Advocacy Project, a nonprofit that owns Walmart stock.)
This wasn’t Janet Sparks’ first trip to Walmart’s annual Arkansas gathering. Three years ago, she attended the same way thousands of other Walmart “associates” do: by being hand-picked and flown in by management. That year, she came up to Mike Duke alone in the arena after the meeting to ask him to help bridge what she called a “moat” insulating management from the experiences of rank-and-file employees.
A lot has changed since then. In 2011, working closely with organizers from the United Food and Commercial Workers union, a hundred employees launched OUR Walmart, labor’s latest effort to force change at the nation’s largest employer and pioneering union-buster. Last year, the group pulled off the first coordinated US strikes in Walmart’s five-decade history, culminating in a high-profile walkout by more than 400 workers on Black Friday.
In the months since, the organization has neither spread like wildfire, nor been snuffed out by Walmart. After six months spent largely out of the headlines, OUR Walmart launched a smaller but longer strike: beginning May 28, about a hundred workers walked off the job and joined Freedom Ride–inspired caravans across the country, which converged in Arkansas for a week of counter-programming to the shareholder convention. Outside billionaire board member Jim Walton’s house, they tried to leave a giant check for $8.81, a (contested) estimate of workers’ hourly wage. Police warned them that would be “littering”. In Walmart’s Bentonville backyard, they went door to door to invite residents to a forum on how Walmart hurts communities. Outside Walmart headquarters, they slammed Walmart’s complicity with Bangladesh factory disasters with a dirge: “Which side are you on Walmart…. Are you on the side of safety, or are you on the side of murder?”
As the strikers sang their song, read Bible verses and listened to a garment industry activist from Bangladesh, dozens of their co-workers stood on the other side of a narrow parking lot, led by management in Walmart’s iconic cheer, chanting each letter of the company’s name: “What’s that spell?” “Walmart!”
When the invited associates and the uninvited strikers crossed paths over the course of the week, the former mostly kept their distance. “They can do their own thing, but we’ll do our own,” one told me when the two groups overlapped at the Walmart-funded Crystal Bridges museum (the strikers had brought a piece of artwork they’d created, and asked an official to display it alongside the Walton-donated paintings). “They’re union,” another Walmart-invited worker said before hastily walking away. “They’re the ones that they warn us about.” Wearing an OUR Walmart shirt and watching his Walmart-invited co-workers in the museum cafeteria, striker Gerardo Paladan told me, “It’s like they look at me like I’m crazy, because I’m wearing this, but [they] don’t know I fight for them.”
The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette reported that Walmart executives devoted portions of their remarks at an employee meeting to bashing OUR Walmart activists, whom they described as paid agitators who thought employees weren’t smart enough to judge their jobs for themselves.
The striking workers’ challenges in engaging those hand-picked co-workers are revealing. Along with whatever slice of Walmart’s workforce is genuinely content with their working conditions, OUR Walmart members say there’s a silent majority in their stores that would like to see change but has a well-founded fear that trying to improve their job would leave them without one. A May report from the union-funded nonprofit American Rights at Work–Jobs with Justice tallied over 150 incidents of alleged intimidation against OUR Walmart worker-activists, from barely veiled threats to retaliatory firings.
Walmart’s tactics have taken a toll—and not just the allegedly illegal ones. Last fall, OUR Walmart member Barbara Gertz mobilized about thirty employees to sign a petition demanding respect, which she and a couple co-workers delivered to a manager. Gertz says co-workers credited it with getting that manager fired. But then Walmart representatives from Arkansas showed up at her Aurora, Colorado, store to run mandatory meetings slamming OUR Walmart. After that, Gertz told me, “some people were afraid to go to break with me.”
While some workers still come to her to share their complaints about their job, “everyone thinks I’m crazy at my store” for risking her job (according to organizers, the day after Gertz and I spoke, one of her co-workers back in Colorado mounted a one day strike in solidarity with the activists in Arkansas). Gertz told me that spending time with OUR Walmart activists from other cities always steels her resolve; she called them a “new family,” and “an army behind me.” But she said that when she’s tried to inspire her immediate co-workers with stories from other cities, “that seems abstract…to them, they’re imaginary people.”
Walmart workers are up against a labor law system that’s fixed in favor of corporate interests. While the law promises workers the chance to choose collective bargaining, it’s proven largely useless for compelling companies like Walmart to concede power, and it’s done all too little to shield workers who try to make good on that promise. The Walmart-ization of the US economy—more poverty jobs, more precarious work, more layers of sub-contracting that confound accountability—has been both a cause and a consequence of labor’s declining leverage on the job and in our politics.
The still-young OUR Walmart campaign shows some of the ways labor’s trying to meet the challenge. Faced with the limits of labor law, unions are increasingly supporting or seeding “alt-labor” efforts like OUR Walmart, which mobilize workers outside collective bargaining. Stymied at the Labor Board or the bargaining table, union and non-union workers are turning to a range of “comprehensive campaign” tactics, marshaling a mix of workplace activism and consumer, media, political and legal pressure in an effort to make companies miserable enough to concede (over the week in Arkansas, strikers floated ideas ranging from a political push for more regulation on Walmart to a one-day consumer boycott). And, most dramatically, even as some major unions have largely abandoned the strike, non-union workers are taking it up.
Defying a judicial-political-economic assault that’s made work stoppages more risky and less effective, retail, janitorial, fast food and federally-contracted workers have each mounted a series of strikes with a similar template: short-term work stoppages, framed as responses to retaliation, which are primarily about embarrassing management and engaging the public rather than shutting down the company. And rather than first building majority support, these strikers gamble that a courageous confrontation will inspire more of their co-workers to step up. “Every time we come back,” said Seattle striker Sarah Gilbert, “and we show them that we can do it, and that we’re OK, more people join.”
At Walmart, the strikers have so far been a very small minority indeed. (In an e-mail to The Nation, Walmart called the Arkansas protests a “union-organized publicity stunt” with only “a small and insignificant amount of associates participating.”) Labor historian Nelson Lichtenstein suggested that calling a walkout by some hundred workers out of a workforce of 1.4 million a strike was “a little bit of a devaluation of the word.” The UFCW’s Dan Schlademan, a key strategist in the OUR Walmart campaign, took a different view, arguing that the willingness of those hundred workers to take on the risk and sacrifice of a several-day strike was a testament to the depth of leadership development that’s taken place over the past several months, and that those strikers will return to work ready to engage many more. Still, he said, “either we prove it’s growing, or it’s not. And we’re certainly going to prove it’s growing this year.”
Janet Sparks says her store’s story offers cause for hope. Sparks first reached out to OUR Walmart in 2011: after reading about the group online, she sent an e-mail telling organizers the same concerns she’d tried to voice to Mike Duke, and saying that while she wouldn’t want any part in an “anti-Walmart” group, she hoped OUR Walmart would offer a way to save the company from itself. As with many other current OUR Walmart leaders, online conversations laid the groundwork for in-person organizing. On Black Friday, while Sparks’ co-workers were too scared to participate, she was among a handful of employees across the country who went on strike without anyone else from their store.
Six months later, when Sparks struck several days longer, she had five co-workers doing it with her. Interviewed in Arkansas, co-worker Mariah Williams recalled that at first she was “a little bit skeptical” of OUR Walmart, and “totally fearful.” But after Sparks struck on Black Friday, and came back to work in one piece, “We saw her do it and it made us want to do it, and become less fearful.” And so Williams agreed to let Sparks and an OUR Walmart organizer come visit her at home. While many of their co-workers are still scared to be seen talking to them at work, Sparks said she believes seeing her return to work after a longer strike will dampen their fear, and that seeing the coverage of their strike and her speech will lead more workers to reach out to OUR Walmart. “If they check it out,” said Sparks, “they’re going to say, this may be for me. I may be able to make change for myself. No wonder Walmart was telling me not to look at this. And they’ll join.”
That’s the paradox of these strikes: They both run the risk of retaliation and offer workers’ strongest weapon for punishing it. And judging by history, how Walmart responds will depend on what the company believes it can get away with and whether a given tactic is more likely to chill organizing or inflame it. That in turn depends on how many Walmart workers choose to defy their fear and join their co-workers.
With the shareholder circus and the strikers’ counter-spectacle now concluded, that’s the question now hanging over Walmart stores. The strikers have made history, and offered hope to workers in far-flung parts of the economy. They can credibly claim to have forced some response (witness Walmart’s announced plans to improve its scheduling system). And Walmart has given its critics ample ammunition, from a widening foreign bribery scandal to the mainstream media reports suggesting that its understaffing is alienating its customers. But as the previous decade proved, Walmart is willing to suffer through some bad press, and would rather spend money than concede power. And so whether OUR Walmart activists can truly transform the world’s biggest company depends on whether they can move co-workers like the ones that Walmart flew to Bentonville.
Following a prayer vigil across from Sam Walton’s original store, Interfaith Worker Justice founder Kim Bobo told me she found it “really hard to engage the religious community” in the previous decade’s union-backed Walmart protests, because unlike this time, “there weren’t workers.” When I asked her how much bigger OUR Walmart would have to get for a shot at some kind of victory, Bobo laughed. “Fifty times bigger, probably. But…I think we’re moving that way.”
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