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Why the Walmart campaign matters

New York based journalist, Ari Paul, examines the unionist uprising against Walmart since the factory fire in Bangladesh, and why this bottom-up campaign could really make a difference

January 4, 2013
4 min read

Photo: OURWalmart/Flickr

When Mike Compton started working at a Walmart distribution center on the outskirts of Chicago last July, he had never really given much thought to unions. After bopping around several warehouse jobs through temp agencies, he was hired at the Walmart warehouse. And he didn’t give much thought to the bad reputation Walmart had as an employer. ‘I needed a job,’ he said.

Today, Compton is unemployed having once been fired, then reinstated, then fired again, for attempting to unionise his fellow warehouse workers. Over the course of just a few months, the lack of respect from managers, the meager pay, and the inconsistent hours inspired him to be a part of the growing rank-and-file worker movement to demand justice at the world’s largest employer. By this Autumn walkouts hit this distribution center and one in California. Workers at retail stores staged smaller walkouts.

While the company has been the bugbear of unions organising the retail sector for years, there is something different going on this time around, and it serves as a bright light for the American labor movement after a few years of crushing losses. The struggle for fair wages and respect for workers at Walmart extends beyond merely the idea of unions at the retail centers, as it shines a spotlight on all parts of the supply chain, from factories abroad to the shelves in Anytown, USA.

The fire at a factory in Bangladesh, which supplied products to Walmart, that killed more than one hundred workers, was a stinging reminder of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in New York City in 1911, which killed 146 immigrant workers, mostly Jewish and Italian women. That incident led to tremendous reforms in safety standards in America and refocus on workers in general. That hasn’t happen this time, but the idea is to build pressure.

That’s why when Occupy Wall Street activists heard about a ship laden with Walmart goods from that country coming into port near New York City they quixotically attempted to block it from docking. Port police cut the activists early, although it is a sign that this ongoing uprising at Walmart is not just a parochial labor campaign, but a fight against the global system of labor inequality.

Case in point: On 11 December, Walmart CEO Mike Duke was in New York City, speaking to the Council on Foreign Relations, in light of the strikes, the allegations of the company bribing an official in Mexico, and the deadly factory fire.

‘They’re here as a corporation to advise those who set international policy,’ said protester Deborah Timmesch.

Indeed, from this angle, Walmart’s reputation of discrimination, low wages and destruction of local communities isn’t the sign of a rogue corporation but rather the standard for global capitalism.

This kind of broad scope for activists and a diversity of tactics could, hopefully, lead to a reinvigoration of the labor movement, both in the United States and elsewhere. In the states, many unions have not only lost members and settled for concessionary wage deals, while at the same time losing legal rights in traditionally labor-strong states like Wisconsin and Michigan. The bottom-up campaign at Wal-Mart could change that. One positive sign is that one of the main organising agents in the Illinois is the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America, a radical but often marginalised union, working with the mainstream United Food and Commercial Workers.

If workers at a Walmart retail center seek to unionise, the company can just shut down the shop. But they don’t have that option with a distribution center that serves as the nerve center for all the stores around it. Like longshore workers have secured their pay and benefits by virtue of their control of the choke points in the intermodal supply chain, Walmart workers are seizing these choke points as well.

Anti-austerity movements around the world have pointed to growing inequality as the root of the economic crisis, Walmart’s position as both a global employer and shaper of global policy should be at the center of that conversation.

For Compton, it’s an easy connection to make. ‘They set the standard,’ he said. ‘I shouldn’t expect more from the biggest employer in the world?’

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