Photo: UFCW International Union/Flickr
There’s no better day to strike against an oppressive commercial employer than on Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving in the US, and possibly the biggest exhibition of fervent consumerism and Capitalist triumph bar Wall Street. A notoriously aggressive event; consumers flock to stores for discounted goods and half-price sales. Past years have seen assaults, stampedes, stabbings and shootings, occasionally resulting in both employee and customer fatalities.
Up until the late 2000’s retailers had opened their doors at 6.00 am; the day after Thanksgiving. However, in the past few years opening hours have reached new lows and by 2011 a number of large retailers including; Target, Kohls, Macy's and Best Buy lured customers in at midnight on Thanksgiving. Not to be outdone, this year Walmart, the biggest private employer in the world, announced it would be opening its stores at 8pm on Thursday, Thanksgiving evening. Barely would its workers, or ‘associates’ as Walmart rhetoric labels them, have time to swallow their turkey dinners before they’d have to leave family homes and confront thousands of frenzied shoppers, some who’d been camping outside stores since Wednesday night.
Walmart has a well-known flagrance for the treatment of its staff, operating an almost autocratic in-store infrastructure; women and ethnic minorities are often subject to harsh treatment from a mainly white, male management. Employees are regularly required to work without meal breaks and often off-the-clock hours without overtime pay. A 2004 New York Times report found extensive violations of child labour laws, including minors forced to work shifts late into school nights. The zenith, or rather nadir, of the corporation’s disregard for its staff was exposed in its ‘Dead Peasants Insurance’; policies taken out on a number of low level workers in an attempt to profit from their deaths. Walmart’s ill-treatment of employees has prompted a number of documentaries, including the critically acclaimed ‘Walmart: The High Cost of Low Price’ and numerous books such as ‘The Wal-Mart Effect’ by Charles Fishman.
Akin to most major corporations in the US, the nation’s biggest employer also operates a rigid anti-union policy; including heavy managerial surveillance and pre-emptive closures for those stores attempting to unionise. Walmart responds that is not anti-union but ‘pro-associate’, unions are an unnecessary third party medium when the managerial door is always open. According to company policy, workers are entitled to discourse with the highest stratums of the corporate ladder.
Interestingly, when butchers in Jacksonville, Texas voted to unionise in the year 2000, Walmart decided to eliminate every in-house meat cutting department across America. This year, despite Walmart’s policy of anti-unionism, United Food & Commercial Workers, a long standing, but largely ineffectual opponent of Walmart, and OUR Walmart, decided to implement ground-breaking protests on the eve of Thanksgiving. Launched in June 2011 OUR Walmart is an organisation labour historian Prof. Nelson Lichtenstein describes as not ‘looking for legal certification’ or claiming ‘to represent everyone’, but simply ‘a minority that is willing to stick their necks out’. Our Walmart effectively unionised employees using clever social media strategies including a powerful YouTube Video with the tagline ‘Stand Up, Live Better’, a play on Walmart’s own slogan, ‘Save Money, Live Better’. Their aim was simple, not to dent Black Friday profits, as this was seemingly impossible, but rather to raise awareness of the unfair labour conditions faced by some 1 million hourly store employees. These issues range from low wages, increases in health insurance premiums, unfair scheduling, managerial bullying and of course the heartless Thanksgiving evening-shifts.
On the eve of Thanksgiving 22nd November, or Black Thursday as it became known, hundreds of Walmart workers, all risking retaliation for their actions, alongside general members of the American public, protested outside over 100 stores across the USA. Rallies took place in Dallas, Los Angeles, Miami, Milwaukee and Washington D.C. and picket signs could be seen outside scores of Walmart stores across Chicago, California and Texas. Walmart executives underplayed and even outright dismissed the actions of the strikers; Bill Simon, CEO and president of Walmart arrogantly stated ‘We estimate that less than 50 associates participated in the protest nationwide. In fact, this year, roughly the same number of associates missed their scheduled shift as last year. Walmart's vice president of communications added that ‘the number of protests being reported by the United Food and Commercial Workers Union are grossly exaggerated.’ However, OUR Walmart Campaign Director Dan Schlademan argued that striking Walmart employee numbers reached well into the hundreds and hailed the event as the “largest U.S. strike in the history of Walmart’.
As of yet, the actual physical effects of the strike remains to be unseen, and indeed the dismissive rhetoric of Walmart executives suggest that nothing will change in the immediacy. However, requested police presence that prevented protesters entering retail car parks at stores in Chicago and Texas imply that executives were clearly anxious at the threat of far more than 50 strikers.
Furthermore, the fact that the dissent actually took place at all, and at present there have been no mass sackings, is a huge success for the future of Our Walmart. Interestingly many Black Thursday shoppers sympathised with the protesters, the majority of those desperate enough to partake in the sales are similarly low-waged individuals all probably experiencing similar working conditions and with little or no representation. Sadly the vicious cycle of poverty forces individuals, too poor to shop at more expensive alternatives, to support the corporations that oppress them.
As members of a relatively unskilled labour force, for Walmart workers the threat of another individual more than willing to take your job should you have any complaints, hangs in the balance. However, the biggest positive to draw from the Black Thursday walkouts is that a segment of employees were brave enough to challenge authority so-far without backlash, and can be the inspiration for many more. This is clearly only the beginning for labour change and Walmart’s first real union. In an interview with The Huffington Post Texan Colby Harris, Walmart employee and OUR Walmart activist stated, ‘Walmart thinks that after all this blows over we’re going to give up. We will continue with our fight… until changes are made. You can’t continue running from the problem, otherwise it’ll never be fixed.’