Strikes at Walmart: War Against Mass Sweatshop Labor and a New Era in the Fight for Jobs and Respect

Walmart workers confront management at their Bentonville, Ark., headquarters

A threat by Walmart employee activists to stage strikes on “Black Friday,” the day after Thanksgiving, is a hugely significant event which has had little attention in the mainstream media. To stop the company retaliating against workers trying to organize, the activists are taking on the foundation of the Walmart retail empire, a behemoth with annual sales totaling more than the entire GDP of Norway, and employing more than 2 million Americans.

According to In These Times, “Retail strikes broke out in at least eight new cities on Tuesday [October 9], and workers staged a major protest at the corporation’s Bentonville, Ark., headquarters on Wednesday. … Following last Thursday’s strike by 63 Walmart workers in the Los Angeles metropolitan area – the first significant retail strike at the world’s largest merchandiser workers walked off the job Tuesday morning at Walmart stores in Dallas, Texas; the Bay Area and Sacramento, California; Seattle; Miami; Washington, D.C. and Chicago.”

Warehouse workers employed by a subcontractor who struck against retaliation and wage theft at a Walmart-owned warehouse near Chicago won all their demands. Striker Phil Bailey told In These Times: “the workers marched back in together wearing T-shirts emblazoned with ‘Warehouse Workers for Justice’.”

Matt Stoller writes in Naked Capitalism that the threatened strike “is potentially one of the biggest stories of the year, a genuine challenge to the current economic order. Walmart has set the tone for the global economy, becoming a massive trading empire on the order of the British East Indies Trading company. … The key to Walmart’s dominance is the way that it electronically tracks all of its merchandise through an enormously efficient supply chain … Beyond that, the size of Walmart – eight cents of every dollar spent on retail in the US goes through the company – means that selling at scale in the US means selling through Walmart. In order to sell there, though, Walmart walks into your company and dictates how you are to manufacture, price, and package your product.”

Walmart’s control of its supply chain has enabled it to eliminate non-essential capital from every step of the process, and to increase the absolute surplus value squeezed out of it. In his article, Stoller quotes New America scholar Barry Lynn: “Once set in motion, the shift of power and initiative from manufacturer to retailer tended only to accelerate. The more Wal-Mart learned about the operations of its suppliers, the more it was able … to zero in on profit centers inside its suppliers. As time went on, Wal-Mart was able to dictate not only how its suppliers packaged and distributed their products, but what they manufactured, how they manufactured, how much money they made on their businesses, and indeed whether they would remain in business at all.”

In addition to its control over manufacturing, a just-in-time distribution system allows less capital to be tied up in inventory, and variable capital is kept to a minimum by not only keeping wages low, but also utilizing labor only when warehouses and stores need it. Labor historian Nelson Lichtenstein described the distribution network like this: “There are layers of subcontractors, but it’s all one system. It’s a mass sweatshop, where pressure is put through subcontractors to squeeze labor. The industry is the supply chain, regardless of who is the technical employer. One of the competitive advantages of Walmart is their ability to deploy labor in ways that they refer to as ‘flexible.’ Come in tonight, work three hours tomorrow, etc. For the workers, this is chaos.”

Walmart is big enough not to face major challenges from competing capitals; however, it needs to continually realize a high rate of profit on the sale of commodities in order to offset the fixed capital tied up in its stores. But the system depends on workers accepting their exploitation. Everything is finely balanced: there is no redundancy, a huge enterprise depends on each link in the chain working perfectly. A minor disruption has the potential to jeopardize the entire network.

Josh Eidelman, who has been following the activists’ campaigns for Salon and In These Times, told Democracy Now that Wednesday’s strike “signifies that we’re in a new wave in this multi-decade struggle between U.S. labor and the world’s largest private employer. And it’s a wave that started, in many ways, this summer in June, when we saw eight workers go out on strike at a Wal-Mart supplier, CJ’s Seafood.” He explained that despite the threat of unemployment, workers were forced to take dramatic action to defend basic rights that may be necessary for a basic standard of living. “And when they do it, they face retaliation. And while much of this retaliation is illegal, much of these alleged acts are illegal, workers have found, not just at Wal-Mart but around the country, that the law itself is not good enough, is not strong enough, to rein the companies in.”

Walmart has used corporate-friendly labor law to suppress attempts at unionization, but breaks the same laws by retaliating against organizing activities. Lichtenstein explains the background to the current action: “At the turn of the new century, the union [the United Food & Commercial Workers] had conducted a vigorous, but traditional, organizing drive seeking National Labor Relations Board certification at dozens of U.S. stores. All failed because the anti-union experts deployed by Wal-Mart top management knew how to intimidate workers and propagandize the workforce in the weeks leading up to a formal union vote. In the case of one Canadian town, they just closed the store when forced to actually bargain with the union under the relatively pro-union laws then governing labor relations in Quebec.”

So the UFCW sought another way to organize Walmart workers. Over the last year the union recruited several thousand employees into an organization called OUR Walmart, standing for Organization United for Respect at Walmart. Lichtenstein considers it to be “a kind of return to labor formations of the 1930s. It’s an association – they aren’t looking for legal certification, they don’t claim to represent everyone. They’re a minority that is willing to stick their necks out. It’s a demonstration strike. For every one worker who actually goes outside and holds a picket sign, you can be sure that 25 workers inside the store or in other stores feel the same way but are afraid to be publicly identified.”

He adds: “The organization does not claim to be a union; it does not seek formal recognition from either the NLRB or even from Wal-Mart. But it does seek to give effective voice to the fears and aspirations of those Wal-Mart associates willing to join. I met four of them last March when they came to a writing workshop at UC Santa Barbara. They were working-class folks with all the insecurities, bills, family problems, and job issues faced by millions of retail and service workers. And they were incredibly brave, because they were determined to tell their story, to explain why their work life at Wal-Mart was so often punctuated by a series of humiliations, petty and grand, that they found intolerable. Joining OUR Walmart was a gamble they were willing to take.”

Explaining why they were willing to take that gamble, Charlene told AOL Jobs: “I joined because I understood what it meant to be intimidated by our management, and unfairly written up for something so bogus.” Two other workers, Greg and William, said they both joined after they were retaliated against. “They were working on the loading dock, and they say the load just kept increasing. Greg and William both complained, but the management didn’t let up. William’s knee – which had been operated on when he was 13 – suffered severe aggravation, and Greg tore some of the connecting issue in his spine. In response, they claim management tried to cut their hours and dock their pay – in Greg’s case down to 10 hours a week, $8 an hour. William and Greg challenged that and won.”

“When OUR Walmart organizers showed up, they were ready to join. ‘This is exactly what we’ve been looking for,’ William thought. ‘This is exactly what we need.’ Says Charlene: ‘It’s going to be a long, long fight. But it’s one we’re willing to go through’.”


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Filed under political analysis, poverty, strikes, Walmart, walmart strikes, We are the 99 percent

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