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Winning at Walmart

The OUR Walmart campaign has been shaking up labour organising in the US. As they prepared for their current strike, Alex Wood spent a month with the people behind a new kind of fightback

June 7, 2013
11 min read


Alex WoodAlex Wood is a sociologist of work and employment @tom_swing


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‘It’s wonderful, it feels like it gives you power, it gives you a voice, it protects you. We’ve never had that before – it’s empowering.’ Nicole, OUR Walmart organiser

On ‘Black Friday’ last year, the busiest shopping day of the year, Walmart workers staged their first nationwide strike. 500 members of the Organisation United for Respect at Walmart (OUR Walmart) walked out and joined 30,000 demonstrators across 47 states protesting against poverty pay, irregular hours and poor working conditions. OUR Walmart has built up a membership of thousands of current and former hourly workers, hundreds of whom hundreds of whom will be joining mass demonstrations at Walmart’s Shareholders’ meeting on 7 June in Arkansas.

Unionisation in the US private sector has fallen drastically over the past two decades. It is now below 7 per cent – lower than at any point since 1932. Out of this slump, however, has come a willingness to embrace new methods.

Walmart is the world’s largest corporation and the biggest private sector employer with a global workforce of 2.2 million. It has always opposed the accommodation of unions, so much so that as it rapidly expanded in the 1970s and 1980s it determinedly avoided the metropolitan markets where unions were strongest. It wasn’t until 2003 that the company felt unionisation was low enough to allow it to expand into cities such as Los Angeles. Despite the lack of recognition, therefore, unions shaped Walmart’s development by placing barriers upon its expansion as well as pushing up minimum acceptable standards.

As unions have declined, so too have working conditions at Walmart, especially since the mid-2000s. The modus operandi is to squeeze more productivity out of less and less labour. This has been aided by the economic crisis and high unemployment. Starting wages at Walmart are close to the legal minimum, well below a living wage, and many workers don’t receive real annual pay rises. Departments are under-staffed, while work has intensified to such an extent that severe injuries are common.

This squeezing of labour is achieved through harsh disciplinary procedures. Workers have no recourse to appeal and are refused an advocate or even a non-managerial witness. Walmart’s power is underpinned by labour laws that allow employers to terminate ‘permanent’ employment without notice. There is no security of hours, which vary by 50-100 per cent week-on-week, often with no regular shift patterns or days off. This makes it impossible for workers to have a steady income or plan their family and social lives. Managerial control over hours not only facilitates the matching of labour supply to short-term changes in demand but also translates into direct control of individual workers: displease a manager and you’ll find your hours suddenly cut or shifted. Managers have no qualms about employing such methods to get rid of workers who are not deemed productive enough, especially those with medical conditions – many of whom cannot access health insurance through Walmart. In one recent case, a manager sought to dispose of an employee with pancreatic cancer (he died before he could be fired). In another a 70 year-old woman suffering from incontinence was fired for going to the toilet too frequently.

Building collective power

Walmart workers are clearly in a position of structural weakness; they lack ‘scare skills’, a tight labour market or a strategically important industry. This means they are highly expendable. Walmart has made use of and reinforced this weakness in its willingness to close down stores and even entire divisions across North America, rather than accept unionisation.

Despite this, the OUR Walmart campaign has shown that workers can build associational power through collective organisation. OUR Walmart has done this by focusing on four interconnected elements of organising: organisational, legal, technological and tactical.

Although the United Food and Commercial Workers’ Union (UFCW) provides crucial resources and expertise, the OUR Walmart campaign is not aiming for unionisation. It remains an aspiration, but everybody involved accepts that, in the short term, it’s an unrealistic one. US labour law requires a formal workplace ballot for a union to be recognised, even if a majority of workers have joined. Walmart has proved extremely adept at winning such ballots, flying in expert union-busters to run intensive anti-union campaigns. So relentless is the company’s approach that Human Rights Watch states it ‘violates workers’ internationally recognised right to freedom of association’. Instead of being a union, therefore, OUR Walmart is an association. This avoids having to fight union ballots that, for the time being, it would certainly lose.

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Being an association also allows workers to re-frame collective organisation in a country where there is a high level of antipathy and distrust towards unions. Members stress to their co-workers that it is run by and for Walmart workers and not outsiders or union hacks. This requires the campaign to be genuinely empowering and participatory.

When any organisation has full-time staff working on behalf of others, centralisation and bureaucratisation are a concern. But at the meetings I attended, I was reminded more of Climate Camp discussions than a typical union meeting. People were prompted to follow the ‘step up-step down’ principle, so that everybody had an equal chance to contribute. The facilitators (who were full-time organisers) would actively seek out the views of workers and encourage participation. When I spoke one-to-one with workers the first thing they would tell me was how empowered they felt and would express a clear sense of ownership of the association and the decisions it made.

The strike as a symbol

The bypassing of in-store union elections isn’t the campaign’s only innovative tactic. Labour law has also been used to workers’ advantage in taking ‘unfair labour practice’ (ULP) strike action. Workers have the legal right to take strike action individually, without needing to be a member of a recognised union, if a ULP claim is submitted to the Labor Board. As Walmart is a serial ULP offender workers can strike at will without needing to form a union, have an election or hold a ballot and are protected by the Labor Board against retaliation or replacement.

OUR Walmart has also made extensive use of social media. Many workers told me about the significance of organising through Facebook as they took their first steps towards becoming active. OUR Walmart campaigner Brad explains: ‘You’re used to dealing with your individual store and then when you see it is nationwide and you’re talking to other people, it kinda blows your mind away.’

Workers can feel isolated in their own Walmart store, especially as the punitive conditions discourage the discussion of workplace grievances. Without the need for intermediaries, workers are able to connect with more than 22,500 other employees and supporters who are currently signed up to the OUR Walmart group on Facebook (www.facebook.com/OURWMT) and understand that the problems they face are far from isolated examples. New members can witness the huge support the campaign generates and its media impact. The association also employs a former Walmart worker to provide training and support via telecommunications and online tools to members located too remotely to be supported face-to-face. Video conferencing helps build a collective identity among workers dispersed across the country, as well as allowing people in all areas to participate in decision-making.

The combined use of ULP regulations and social media has allowed OUR Walmart to develop innovative strike tactics. Strikes usually aim to hit the company wallet but OUR Walmart doesn’t yet have the numbers to make a significant dent on profits. On Black Friday only a handful of workers at each store of 200-plus employees took action, so it was easy for the company to find cover for striking workers.

For the OUR Walmart campaign, strikes instead function mainly as a symbolic protest. Going on strike demonstrates a worker’s commitment and determination. This effect is amplified through a sophisticated media strategy. On Black Friday a relatively small number of workers gained a large amount of media attention from stopping work for a relatively short period of time. The strike’s impact was accentuated by its combination with large demonstrations of community allies – which the association puts a lot of effort into forming. More than 1,000 people joined the LA store picket, for example.

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This makes the experience of taking strike action particularly empowering. Ashlyn, who went on strike on Black Friday, recalls that they ‘had a lot of people backing us up . . . When I turned round and saw all those people I was like, oh my God, this is something and I’ll keep on doing it and I love it and I’m not backing down.’

OUR Walmart has transformed the strike from a mass economic tactic into something more akin to the affinity group nonviolent direct action and skilled media management methods of UK Uncut. Black Friday also saw a group of LA workers, family members and a member of the clergy shut down the road leading to a store for two hours in a pre-planned illegal blockade before being arrested. The risks involved in taking such actions strengthen the members’ commitment to the association.

Reorganising labour

Reputational damage hits Walmart particularly hard as it has reached market saturation in its traditional areas and is stifled by competition internationally. Expansion into the metropolitan areas it previously avoided is crucial but this is often blocked by concerned local authorities. As a result, the company has failed to open any stores in New York and there is only one in LA.

Constraining Walmart’s growth into these areas, until it improves working conditions, forms an important prong of OUR Walmart’s strategy. This includes mobilising mass protests and sending current employees to speak against the company at media and city council events. In 2012, for example, OUR Walmart and the UFCW mobilised 10,000 people to march against plans for a Walmart in LA’s China Town, while a store application in New York was rejected thanks in part to OUR Walmart’s campaign. This strategy has the additional upside for the UFCW of protecting unionised stores from competition with non-unionised Walmarts.

OUR Walmart is having a significant impact on labour struggles in the US. It is finding new ways for workers with almost no structural power to take effective collective action. If only one in ten hourly workers joined OUR Walmart, this would constitute a membership of 100,000 workers, providing serious human and financial clout.

Such a target is entirely realistic. Where OUR Walmart has concentrated organisational effort it has consistently had one tenth of workers joining the campaign, and in some stores the numbers are as high as 20 to 40 per cent. In response, Walmart has already made some initial moves to improve work scheduling and the campaign looks set to win other improvements – as long as they aren’t too costly. Even support for raising the federal minimum wage isn’t inconceivable, as it would boost consumption while not competitively disadvantaging Walmart. Such victories could propel OUR Walmart into winning more concessions and perhaps one day even recognition.

The situation facing traditional unions in the US is grim but it’s important to recognise that new forms of labour organisation have always arisen out of old forms. When Ford introduced the assembly line, it was said to herald the death of the labour movement, making the workers’ skills, on which craft unions were based, obsolete while dramatically expanding the potential labour supply. It was only after the successes of unions, following a 30-year militant struggle in which new organisational forms were developed and new tactics embraced, that it become the received wisdom that Fordism, in fact, created a fertile ground on which unions could organise. There is cause to hope that the innovative methods that OUR Walmart has developed make possible a similar reincarnation for 21st-century labour organisation.

Alex Wood is a research student at Cambridge University. He spent a month visiting Californian OUR Walmart members in advance of their strike and planned mass demonstrations at Walmart’s shareholders’ meeting on 7 June. Photographs by OUR Walmart

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Alex WoodAlex Wood is a sociologist of work and employment @tom_swing


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