The 'Black Friday' Wal-Mart strikes: an analysis

The 'Black Friday' Wal-Mart strikes: an analysis

Friday the 23rd of November will see Wal-Mart, which owns UK chain ASDA and which has an entirely non-union workforce, hit with coordinated strikes and protests on “Black Friday”, the busiest shopping day of the year.

This article, written by a American-born SolFedder who's worked retail in the past, seeks to explore the strikes: their roots and their implications for the American working class. This is written in lieu, I should add, of a proposed North London SolFed solidarity picket on the day. It didn't happen. I blame PAMSU wink

So what should radicals make of this? First and foremost, we should support the strikers. We should make an effort to understand how such strikes were organised, how they've spread, and why, at this particular point, Wal-Mart workers have found the confidence to strike. Second, however, we should also analyse the potential pitfalls of the so-called “viral strikes”. In such unofficial strikes, where does self-organisation end and trade union mediation begin? How can we support the former and minimise the latter?

From Buy Nothing Day to Strike Day: Substitutionalism, Class Struggle, and the Crisis

“Black Friday” is called as such because it's the busiest shopping day of the year in America. It's the kick-off to the highly profitable holiday shopping season and, if retailers' claims are to be believed, the day each year where they go from being 'in the red' to profitably being 'in the black'.

Not surprisingly then, Black Friday has long been a target of activists. Prior to this year's strikes, this activism culminated in the Buy Nothing Day campaign initiated by the “social activist” magazine Adbusters. For Buy Nothing Day, Americans are encourage to buy literally NOTHING as a protest against mass consumption and the consumer society. Besides the obvious folly of such a campaign—folks are going to purchase Christmas presents one way or another, it makes sense to buy them as cheaply as possible—it's substitutionalist in the worst way. Lacking anything close to a class analysis, the emphasis is not on workers or the power they have as the operators of the means of production and distribution. Instead, it's up to consumers to step in and change the world.

All of this is tied up in liberal and often patronising notions of “exploitation”. Exploitation is something which happens over “there” in third world sweatshops. It's our job as western consumers to shame the likes of ASDA and use our consumer power to pressure companies and governments to play nice. According to this logic, the problems we have in the wealthier nations are not those of labour, but of consumption. If only we consumed less, the world's problems would decrease in turn.

This author doesn't think that it's material wealth which keeps any country's working class from rebelling, but a lack of confidence in our own power. In the US, no doubt, the ruling class promotes the idea that as the poster children for global capitalism, Americans have the highest standard of living in the world (and, if not of living, certainly of “freedom”). But with the ever deepening crisis, such a façade breaks down more and more by the day.

The reality of outsourcing, temp work, and the generally increasing precariousness of employment facing the global working class has undoubtedly hit home. And, consequently, people are starting to fight back.

Understanding the Players Behind the Strikes

Before continuing, it's worth noting that there can be no doubt that salts from American trade unions have been gaining employment at Wal-Mart for years. Wal-Mart, despite its incessantly aggressive anti-union stance, would be a massive prize in terms of dues money. The boost in prominence for the union who 'broke' the chain would be massive.

For their part, Wal-Mart has suggested that the UFCW (for English readers, think USDAW. Yeah, that shit.) is behind the coming strikes. And in 2009 the CEO of Wal-Mart and the the leader of the massive Service Employers International Union issued a joint statement in support of President Obama's healthcare reforms.

In any case, the first strikes which have led us here began when outsourced non-union warehouse workers walked off the job in California. The workers were associated with Warehouse Workers United. WWU are, in turn, supported by Change to Win, a large breakaway group from the main American trade union federation, the AFL-CIO. As part of the strike, the workers began a fifty mile “pilgrimage” where they were supported by community organisations and faith groups.

Following this, more non-union outsourced warehouse workers in Indiana walked off the job, struck for three weeks, and won their main demands. And in an unheard development, the workers returned with full back pay for days missed due to the strike.

This time, the workers were supported by a workers centre associated with the independent trade union UE. UE is generally considered to be, in American parlance, the “best of the business unions”. The union is more democratic, more left-wing, and less tied to the Democratic Party. It's also more likely to engage in direct action and challenge anti-worker laws. It's even willing to fight without recognition and as a minority union.

Interestingly, in both cases the workers made Wal-Mart and not their direct employer the public target. Tactics like supply-chain organising and direct action by a non-unionised workforce, long advocated by radicals, made a distinct appearance in these strikes. None of this is to say that the organisers of these strikes were radicals—I have no evidence one way or the other—or that such struggles won't eventually be recuperated. But it is to say that there is at least a latent radicalism within the strike wave.

From the warehouses to the stores, shopworkers then began to strike. By mid-October 28 stores in 12 states had been hit by strikes. It's a safe bet to say that various trade unions, groups, and probably even some self-organisation has been behind the scenes in these stoppages.

Since the early retailworker actions in Southern California, a group calling itself OUR Walmart claimed to be supporting the strikers. Wal-Mart, for their part, have filed for an injuction against the planned Black Friday strikes and demonstrations. The company alleges that the OUR Walmart is a project of the UFCW and that the protests constitute illegal pickets.

Where Next?

The Black Friday Wal-Mart strike wave could prove to be a watershed moment in US labour history. It could be a rebirth of American labour, inspiring other service and retail workers to begin organising on the job. Or it could more of the same: trade unions harvesting the inevitable anger that bubbles up on the shopfloor and using it to prop up themselves as the representatives of labour.

So, as radicals, what can we do? For one, go to Friday's pickets and protests. Begin making contacts with the striking workers. Talk to them about about material issues and don't lecture them about politics. Instead, offer to support them in ways and with actions that the trade unions won't.

Deeper political conversations will develop from there. Besides helping to push for more militant actions we can help to inoculate the workers against not only the inevitable backlash they'll face from management, but from the inevitable sell-outs they'll experience if trade unions are allowed to monopolise future actions.

Posted By

Chilli Sauce
Nov 22 2012 23:08

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  • Why, at this particular point, have Wal-Mart workers found the confidence to strike and how do we analyse the potential pitfalls the so-called “viral strikes”. Where does self-organisation end and trade union mediation begin? How can we support the former and minimise the latter?

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Comments

Chilli Sauce
Nov 22 2012 23:08

Sorry admins, few more edits on typos and such, if you'd be so kind....

Steven.
Nov 22 2012 23:19

Bloggers can approve their edits themselves now

Chilli Sauce
Nov 23 2012 01:23

Took a little while to figure it out, but I'm glad we've that got power now. Thanks Steven.

tastybrain
Nov 23 2012 01:43

I'm working tommorow and my workplace is right next to a Wal Mart. Is there anyway to find out if there will be a picket there?

fleurnoire-et-rouge
Nov 23 2012 02:16

Try this, input your zipcode

http://forrespect.org/

devoration1
Nov 23 2012 04:49

I wrote a short populist-y article (that fits on both sides of a standard A4 sheet of paper) tonight in preparation for tomorrow's strikes for a new blog project I just started working on. I plan on visiting multiple stores to see whats going on and talk to the workers. Used to work for WM, still know a couple people that work there. Much of it seems to have originally been years in the making by UFCW's corporate campaign (trying to stop the building of new WM's, raise 'awareness' of working conditions and pay/benefits, counter WM propaganda, build coalitions, sign up current and former workers to the campaign, etc.). I can tell you that when I worked there there was never time for anyone to contemplate a union; mass firings were common, unbelievably high turnover, blatant safety violations, intimidation via speedup, arbitrary work assignments that change daily, boss playing favorites, etc. Slapped IWW stickers all over the place, handed out a couple issues of IW before finally quitting. Most of the coordination seems to be from UFCW and CtW allies (communication/coordination websites online, glossy signs and pickets, t-shirts, prepared slogans, organized 'prayer vigils' [not kidding-look at SEIU's site!])- but their loose control over the affair, and the odd situation since Taft-Hartley and co. don't apply to non-unionized workers, means that the strikers have a hell of a lot more power and potential than they, at this moment, probably realize.

"Before the sun ever thought of shining down on us today, tens of thousands of Walmart workers were preparing for an instrumental confrontation with the largest private employer in the United States. Some were motivated by the disgust of spending another day working for a company that provides poverty level pay and benefits. Others want to break the cycle of virulent anti-union chauvinism that the 1%, who count among their number the filthy rich Walton family, rains down on their workers through captive audience meetings, anti-labor videos shown to new hires, the wiping out of entire departments (the meat cutters) and stores because they showed signs of organizing. Regardless of the initial reason for picking up a picket sign and braving the likely outcomes of strike action (intimidation and retaliation up to and including being fired), workers across this vast country are telling the boss to go to hell (and take the humiliating uniforms with you). But if there is any chance at bringing this retail colossus to its knees, it rests with the democratic organization and coordination of the workers.

Many organizations will participate in the strike action as a means to show solidarity with the Walmart workers. Some will encourage unionization, some will encourage workers to create bottom-up radical unions to fight with unconventional, direct action tactics for a higher standard of living. Some may even ask the workers to support local electoral campaigns of politicians who are ‘friends of the 99%’, ‘friends of labor’, who will scrutinize and regulate what Walmart does and where it can build its stores through state legislatures and city councils. A lot of people will suggest a lot of things, but the common denominator between them is that they ask the workers to cede their fight to someone else; a political party, a union, politicians. We are seeing at companies like Hostess Brands what happens when workers hand off their struggles to someone else without turning to each other for solidarity. There are 10 unions at Hostess Brands, and only 1 is bravely struggling, using the strike weapon to fight the boss. The answer to a successful fight back against corporate interests is spreading the strike, horizontally, to all nearby workers. If your Walmart is hit with the strike today, send one of your own to neighboring businesses; bring other workers out in solidarity with you. Link up with other workers engaged in struggle, communicate your tactics and your demands, spread it and build it until you’ve all won. Raise the standards for everyone bringing home a paycheck.

You have numerous options available to you. Instead of letting ‘representatives’ make those decisions for you, elect delegates from among your fellow striking workers, form strike committees, make decisions through a General Assembly where every worker has an opportunity to be heard and make contributions to the decision making process. Your fellow workers around the world, whether it’s Chinese factory workers at Honda and Foxconn, Greek workers in the public sector, or the miners in Spain, are taking over their own struggles and acting with the militant spirit that wins every successful industrial action. They are most successful when they elect their own worker-delegates, form committees to direct the struggle, strike and occupy tactically. You have the power to echo the call of militant class struggle that is being heard around the globe. No one can take away your dignity, take away from the quality of life you earn everyday through your labor. Make them pay for years of threats to cut your pay and benefits, years of lost wages, years of stolen break and lunch times, years of firing your co-workers without just cause, years of denying you a living wage, usable healthcare benefits and a reliable pension. The only thing the Walton’s and their puppets in corporate understand is the bottom line. Make them hurt for money this holiday, make the sales projections look like wasted paper. Without your labor they have nothing. It’s time they understand that- in the clearest light of day when you tell them, “I’ve had enough,” by withdrawing that labor. Strike until they’re the ones begging for a compromise; and then continue to strike, organize, occupy until you’ve won.

Notes from a former Walmart worker"

Chilli Sauce
Nov 23 2012 09:54
Quote:
[Trade union's] loose control over the affair, and the odd situation since Taft-Hartley and co. don't apply to non-unionized workers, means that the strikers have a hell of a lot more power and potential than they, at this moment, probably realize.

This.^^^

I will say on your leaflet though, comrade, it's definitely good, but the language is really flowery. For what it's worth, when we write for the general public, I think it's worth taking an Orwell sort of approach: never using a complicated word when a simpler one will do and always striving to keep sentences and paragraphs short and concise.

pikatron
Nov 23 2012 10:55

here is an interesting short film on the recent warehouse workers strike in Chicago, and how they were supported by the teachers who were also striking at the same time. while there is the usual reformist/non-radical stuff ('we just want our fair share', 'i come here with the will to work, not a free handout' etc.), there are positive moments where it isn't just about working conditions but also general worsening life conditions, their knowledge of their power and position within the global supply chain, as well as the cross-sector solidarity with the striking teachers
http://en.labournet.tv/video/6405/walmart-warehouses-strike-2012

syndicalist
Nov 23 2012 14:51

Gonna read after work. I'll pass it along in the meanwhile.

Chilli Sauce
Nov 23 2012 15:44

Any updates from our American posters on how the strikes are going? Or even better, report backs from picket lines?

Hieronymous
Nov 23 2012 15:58

Heading out now. Since my city doesn't have one, I'll have to drive out to the 'burbs. Might be able to check out 3 today. Please post any news of actions at Walmarts elsewhere that I can pass along to protestors at these stores.

syndicalist
Nov 23 2012 16:37

Had CNN on earlier today....they were reporting of a place in Maryland....the in-studio person kept pushing the on-site reporter to determine numbers of Walmart workers versus others. I suspect this will be a tact that news media will play up..... and the company as well...one can prolly expect there to be certain hot spot locations, with others being cold or chilled over over warm

But the question of worker involvement (the "union" striking the bosses, not the workers*) will be of overall interest. And how the issues are framed throughout the day and post-Friday will be interesting. Additionally, will actual strikes or walk-outs be in certain sectors of the chain (warehousing, not retail or limited?)Also, will post-Friday begin to see a surge in worker interest in the campaign and momentum to build on that. This remains to be seen, of course.

---

* This was a tactic the old garment workers unions will do. They find a non-union shop, throw up pickets and try and make the boss sign on from an external strike. Granted, this campaign is different, in the sense it is issue oriented, but some of the tactics seem similar.

devoration1
Nov 23 2012 17:17

Police are being used to issue 'trespass' warnings against possible UFCW activists. Wal-Mart seems to be taking a soft approach to its own workers, but the usual hardline against anyone who may show up who isn't a current Walmart employee (OURwalmart, Make Change at Walmart, WWJ, WWU, etc.).

My impression so far is that the People Division (WM's anti-union task force) and whatnot may have an accurate handle on whats going on. There's nothing going on at my old workplace, or from what I can tell the other nearby stores (will venture out further shortly). Maybe UFCW had a tighter grip on whats happening than they let on originally (i.e. strike action is limited to the handful of states & stores where they've organized minority union type groups).

Quote:
I will say on your leaflet though, comrade, it's definitely good, but the language is really flowery. For what it's worth, when we write for the general public, I think it's worth taking an Orwell sort of approach: never using a complicated word when a simpler one will do and always striving to keep sentences and paragraphs short and concise.

I appreciate the feedback. Actually, I think BusinessWeek may have coined the best phrase in a strike-related article:

"Holiday cheer is a tough sell if your workers are picketing in the parking lot."

Hieronymous
Nov 25 2012 08:10

At least 200 demonstrators came to the protest at the Hilltop Mall Walmart in San Pablo, California, which is closer to the city of Richmond. It had all the usual Bay Area suspects, but outside agitators like Mary Kay Henry too. Other motivational speakers were local congressional rep George Miller.

After the appointed 2 hours, the union piecards told everyone to go home "in a respectful" manner. Most did, but it was pretty fucking demoralizing. [This form of symbolic protest was] . . . disingenuous since most of the slick glossy picket signs said the word "strike" on them.

[deleted]

EDIT: apparently some non-scheduled Walmart workers announced that they wouldn't work on Black Friday.

devoration1
Nov 23 2012 21:37

It's all quiet at my former workplace, and the other 2 Walmarts within an hour drive. Workers in rural Maryland and WV didn't seem to know much about it outside of what their bosses told them. Which is in line with Hieronymous' experience- small instances of organic anger and dissatisfaction by store workers is blown up by the 'labor left' and labor coalitions/front groups.

The HuffingtonPost leaked a confidential Walmart memo on how managers are to handle strikes/walkouts at their stores:

http://www.addictinginfo.org/2012/10/14/huffington-post-publishes-memo-with-walmarts-secret-strike-strategies/

They also wrote this sad tale about a lone (and incredibly brave) Walmart store worker who struck by herself:

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/11/21/walmart-strikes-black-friday_n_2174166.html

syndicalistcat
Nov 24 2012 02:30

Frankly I think the above analysis has hints of paternalism. What I think is desireable is to look at it from the Walmart worker's point of view, which you don't do.

OUR Walmart had 100 members about a year ago and now claim to have thousands of members. If true this is a sign of an upsurge from below. I talked with one paid staff person who said he was from OUR Walmart, not UFCW. UFCW now says OUR Walmart is an independent association. They may be claiming this to minimize their legal liabilities. I can't say what the real situation is.

I was at the action today at the San Lorenzo-San Leandro Walmart on Hesperian Boulevard. There were between 300 to 350 people there. A large circling picket line of supporters. A group of OUR Walmart workers were up against the wall with a banner "On Strike Against Retaliation". There were many activists from various unions...ILWU, Teamsters, SEIU city & social workers, Oakland teachers union, San Francisco Jobs with Justice (loosely aligned with AFL-CIO), ANSWER (front for Party for Socialism & Liberation), various groups, a few anarchists I know, some Occupy people. The Brass Liberation Orchestra were marching & playing.

I don't know how many people at this store walked out. Last week there were four who walked out. At that time one of the workers, Dominic Ware, gave a talk. When I arrived at today's protest I saw him being interviewed and he gave a talk at the end that ended the protest. He's a tall, 30ish African-American man, calm but courageous in his manner.

I think OUR Walmart seems to be developing as a kind of minority union, a somewhat autonomous worker association, in somewhat the manner of a number of the new unions of the early '30s upsurge in the USA. They are up against the world's largest corporation with over a million employees. Obviously the bureaucratic business unions would like to eventually "capture" this upsurge if it goes to victory.

Hieronymous
Nov 24 2012 07:47

After I left the Richmond Walmart, I went to the Oakland Walmart that's near the airport. The only protestors there were the fucking RCP with their table decorated with Bob Avakian quotes. Maybe a half dozen cadre flying -- or trying to flyer -- disinterested shoppers.

I then drove past the San Leandro Walmart (1919 Davis Street, just south of the airport) where there wasn't a single protestor.

I got to the other San Leandro Walmart (15555 Hesperian Blvd.) about a half hour early. Activists slowly trickled in, and was almost entirely identical to the one in the morning in Richmond. That is, with the same leftist activists who come to nearly every quasi-labor demonstrations in the Bay Area. Some are rank-and-filer unionists, but many of those are Trotskyites, Stalinists or Social Democrats. Others are piecards, who function mostly as operatives of the Democratic Party. After the protest began at 4:00 p.m., I couldn't stand seeing one more scripted union rally and left. I've seen these pageants thousands of times before and this one was no different. I wish it weren't like this.

When Occupy Oakland began it's decline, in early November 2011, it was the appearance of these leftist activists -- made visual by their union jackets -- in GAs and other meetings that marked Occupy Oakland's death. Today's two labor pageants gave off the same demoralizing substitutionist vibe. Even if there were actual rank-and-file Walmart workers present, they were so lost in liberal social justice rhetoric by outsiders that this toothless empty ritual was no different from ones that happen weekly. More of the same ol' shit.

I hate to sound so pessimistic, but I'm expressing my honest opinion. Unless Saul Alinsky was right about outsiders bringing organizational impetus and consciousness from the outside (an ideology he shared with Lenin), this struggle won't be driven forward by the agency of Walmart workers themselves but instead will be these vapid spectacles out of the UFCW playbook. It doesn't matter if it's Change to Win, AFL-CIO, faith-based groups, or local politicians leading these events because unless the initiative comes from the shopfloor, it will be the same losing strategy unions have been doing for 30 years.

This is clearly completely different from the insurgency of the 1930s. Back then the organizing began with direct action, whether the jobs actions, quickie strikes and wildcats or the militant occupation and defense of whole factories.It was the content of the struggles, not the form of their organizations that was the driving force in the class war. George Rawick sums this up best in this essay "Working Class Self-Activity":

George Rawick wrote:
The full organization of the major American industries, however, was a mark of the victories, not the cause of the victories, of the American working class. The unions did not organize the strikes; the working class in the strikes and through the strikes organized the unions. The growth of successful organizations always followed strike activity when some workers engaged in militant activities and others joined them. The formal organization – how many workers organized into unions and parties, how many subscriptions to the newspapers, how many political candidates nominated and elected, how much money collected for dues and so forth – is not the heart of the question of the organization of the working class. The statistics we need to understand the labor history of the time are not these. Rather, we need the figures on how many man-hours were lost to production because of strikes, the amount of equipment and material destroyed by industrial sabotage and deliberate negligence, the amount of time lost by absenteeism, the hours gained by workers through the slowdown, the limiting of the speed-up of the productive apparatus through the working class’s own initiative.

It's great that other Walmart workers will be aware of the militant efforts of their fellow workers. But until the action draws in more that a handful of the 225 employees in the average Walmart store, these symbolic protests today won't take the next step to become militant class-struggle direct action. After seeing how stage-managed the unions made today's banal events, I can never imagine the UFCW -- and its various front groups like OUR Walmart -- doing anything differently.

Chilli Sauce
Nov 24 2012 16:23
Quote:
Frankly I think the above analysis has hints of paternalism. What I think is desireable is to look at it from the Walmart worker's point of view, which you don't do.

Would you care to elaborate on that on that first sentence?

On the second, I mean, I'm not a Walmart worker and I'm writing from a totally different country. I think it'd be quite patronizing to pretend I could write from a Walmart workers point of view. I pulled together what information I could, combined it with a bit of my own experience in the industry, and a critique of my experience of American trade unionism.

Plus, it's quite clear from the first sentence of the third paragraph that it's aimed at radicals and the article admittedly takes a lot of critique for granted. I guess that could come across as patronizing if you've never been involved in these sorts of conversations before. But, then again, I think it'd be fucking crazy to show up at a Walmart and start handing out a piece like this. That's clearly not the intention of the article.

On OURWalmart, I hope you're right that it actually is an upsurge from below (although your admission that it already has full-timers makes me question). As I state in the article, I have no doubt that self-organisation has played a role in these actions--as it inevitably plays a role in every struggle to one degree or another. Looking at the OURWalmart website, however, it certainly seems like a UFCW project. (Althought I never worked at Walmart I have worked at a UFCW grocery store.) I mean, they favorably quote Sam Walton throughout.

Maybe you're right and the group does have a lot of organizational autonomy and will be fighting as an independent minority union for the foreseeable. That doesn't mean the activists still don't need to be on their guard against being co-opted or taken over by an opportunistic trade union bureacracy. I don't think it's patronizing to say so.

Hieronymous
Nov 24 2012 17:21

This post from a comrade in Southern California pretty much sums up the day:

Quote:
Sounds like the Walmart actions are kicking off in a big way, especially if you like union police with your police police, or if you prefer tightly choreographed tragic-then-farcical theater of the absurd to anything with the remote possibility of being empowering/dangerous. From one spectacle to another, the lesser of two evils.
Chilli Sauce
Nov 24 2012 17:37

Well that's depressing.

Has anyone actually talked to the workers on picket lines or seen interviews that haven't been filtered through the media/the union?

Hieronymous
Nov 24 2012 17:58

The way the police police acted at these events, it was pretty clear that they were permitted and prearranged. The most fucking annoying things were the constant appeals from the union police not to "block the entrances in any way." The piecardds did everything they could to make these spectacles take on the harmless appearance of a carnival sideshow -- replete with marching bands -- and to in no way look like a strike or any other kind of militant action. Amongst my comrades, this is what we found most demoralizing; it felt like school, with union hacks and labor activists being the truant officers. As though deviating from the age-old UFCW script would get us detention.

A comrade and I went into the store in Richmond after all the activists diligently left upon being instructed to. As we walked through the entrance, we were obviously being watched by management in suits. They clearly tracked our movements throughout the store. The workers picked up on this too, so we avoided endangering them by trying to talk with them. Anyway, it was a consumeristic shark feeding frenzy, especially in departments like electronics where shoppers were 10 deep at the counter trying to demand discounts that had expired hours before, as well as trying to get things like flat-screen TVs that had already sold out. The workers were simply too busy to talk with us, even had they been willing.

Schwarz
Nov 24 2012 17:55

Ended up at a demonstration in South Carolina. Same story to report: about 35 activist types and some piecards, no Walmart workers. I did meet 5 or 6 ILA workers who were there in solidarity. I actually got to meet one of the Charleston Five and talked to the guys about their relationship with ILWU folks on the west coast, South African longshore struggles, etc. Good times. That was the only redeeming quality of the day.

Chilli Sauce
Nov 24 2012 17:58

Not surprising.

That said, I imagine UFCW knew these protests would be well attended in parts of California, but in lots of other parts of the country, I can imagine a lot of this occured without too much union police or police police coordination. Be interesting to see how things differed at those sites.

I heard rumors the IWW was hoping to co-ordinate support actions nationally. Any Wobs on the boards to tell if pickets with an IWW presense were any more confrontational?

Finally, does anyone know of the striking Walmart workers, which groups within the store were strongest? Workers in the warehouse? Thos that stock shelves? Cashiers?

Schwarz
Nov 24 2012 18:05

I linked to a shitty wikipedia article up there out of laziness.
Here is a much better one.

syndicalistcat
Nov 24 2012 19:51

Here's what I posted elsewhere: "What will ultimately count at Walmart will be the ability of the workers themselves to develop their association in the workplace, so that they have an organized way of standing by each other, and can build a movement that can shut down the store, and cut off the flow of profits to the company. All the noisy protests of "community supporters" can't substitute for that or create it, tho the outpouring of community support is not worthless insofar as it may help to build resolve in the minds of individual workers, their sense that they're not "the feeble strength of one". but the solidarity that has to be the foundation is among themselves."

In regard to the San Lorenzo-San Leandro Walmart protest, which Hieronymous couldn't bear to stick around for, there were efforts of marshals (including one of my anarchist comrades) to keep people from blocking the entrance and the parking lot roadway, but later Walmart gave up on that and blocked it themselves. There was a middle-aged woman who was running around orchestrating things. I think she's with UCFW but I can't say for sure. I was ill the previous saturday so i missed the planning meeting, unfortunately, or I would be in a better position to say something about how the protest was organized.

Hieronymous bitches about marshals preventing people from blocking the store entry. If people had tried to do that, there would have been a confrontation with the police. What Hieronymous didn't ask himself apparently was, What did the OUR Walmart workers in this store want people to do? In fact they distributed a small leaflet asking people to be respectful. And asking customers to give a solidarity dollar to the checker on the way out. The level of militant conscousness & self-confidence is only just beginning to develop among the workers...that is my sense. They are up against the world's biggest corporation, and they are still very much a minority union in the workplaces. And when I say "minority union" I don't just mean the formal organization "OUR Walmart" but also the actual organizing & mutual support & interactions going on among these workers in the stores.

H. quotes George Rawick and makes this summation: "This is clearly completely different from the insurgency of the 1930s. Back then the organizing began with direct action, whether the jobs actions, quickie strikes and wildcats or the militant occupation and defense of whole factories.It was the content of the struggles, not the form of their organizations that was the driving force in the class war." Actually this is not quite right. Take the first plant occupation, at Hormel. There were already a group of IWW butchers in that plant. There was organizing that had been going on. They would not have been able to get hundreds of workers to bust thru the doors and seize the plant if this had not been gestating for awhile. This is the inaccuracy in H.'s spontaneism.

huli
Nov 24 2012 23:05

I also attended the demonstration at the Richmond/San Pablo Walmart.

I spoke briefly with two of the young Walmart workers who had been fired from that store after a previous strike action. Unfortunately, they were both pretty distracted by other conversations but I was able to at least express my acknowledgement of the courage it takes to stand up to the boss, and I had a slightly longer exchange with one of them about the way conditions at Walmart affect conditions for other workers as well, and how their fight is important for all of us.

(I have to admit that a voice in the back of my head wondered if the two workers were UFCW salts.)

I was unable to determine if there were other Walmart workers there on strike who were still employed by the store. The workers I did see, who were clearly not on strike but were moving shopping carts in from the parking lot, did not seem eager to make eye contact as they passed the crowd outside – not surprising, given the level of management surveillance of the activities.

Mostly I just felt uninspired by the pro-forma union/lefty spectacle quality of the whole thing, including the exhortations not to disrupt passage into or out of the store (was I the only one who said “Why?” and was ignored?), and the firm command that we should all leave “respectfully.”

This isn’t to say that the action didn’t bolster the courage of Walmart workers to keep fighting the boss. I hope it did. And it’s not that I am convinced one way or the other that all of us entering the store, filling our carts, and abandoning them at the check-out lines, or something like that, would have been the right thing to do at that moment, but I am saying that I was disgusted by the usual controlling behavior of the unions exerting itself in a situation that was putatively a “from below” upswelling of workers' resistance. UFCW is trying to have it both ways, it seems.

I think there is a difference between criticizing this control by the unions, and fetishizing spontaneity (which I don’t think Hieronymous is doing, by the way.) I can’t speak with absolute certainty to the decision-making process inside OUR Walmart, but my experience with unions makes me suspect that the UFCW makes sure to “organize” in such a way that ensures agreement with their “program.” So I doubt there would be much room for Walmart workers to get support from UFCW if they had wanted to disrupt operations in the store.

I have been employed as a staffer at a couple of “progressive” and “militant” mainstream unions at various points in my life, and I had a hard time telling the difference between yesterday’s action and the many actions I have attended demanding card-check at non-union workplaces. The formula is pretty consistent: the union gets salts hired in the workplace and runs a community-support and boycott campaign from the outside. The salts are often the public face of the shop-based organizing committees, but are required to hew unflinchingly to the “program” designed by the union leadership. The picket actions are stage-managed media spectacles - including the ever-present staffer running around at the last second trying to keep the last of the diminishing crowd to stay for a media outlet that would be arriving late, after everyone had already been instructed to leave by a union official. (Unions in these situations are also extremely careful not to do anything that would trigger an “RM petition” to the NLRB by the employer, requiring a union election.)

UFCW is trying to put a new twist on a familiar formula by forming the OUR Walmart association and invoking minority-unionism tactics, perhaps attempting to test the water for a recognition campaign later if OUR Walmart grows legs and attracts enough members. I was at a union staff workshop on alternative, non-recognition strategies a while back where a UFCW representative presented an outline of the OUR Walmart campaign. It seems to me that UFCW is a union that is running out the clock, and has little to lose by staging experimental runs on the Moby Dick of retail behemoths. Even so, it does not seem willing to loosen the reins and allow anybody to go off-script for a second.

Also, I think it is important to note that “community support” for these Walmart workers, while perhaps heart-warming, is not determinative. After all, progressive/lefty/union revulsion at Walmart is nothing new, and has expressed itself through feeble boycott campaigns and Black Friday anti-consumer sign-holding demos for many years now. I hate to say it, but I feel like the crowd outside Walmart yesterday was partly just happy to have one more reason to demonstrate their hatred of down-scale consumerism, but dressed up with some solidarity with workers, politely ignoring that all of it served UFCW’s last, gasping attempt to shore up its “market share.”

I really hope that Walmart workers do feel encouraged and emboldened by these efforts to resist the boss more aggressively, in a self-determined manner, but I am not particularly optimistic about UFCW’s vampiric machinations.

Hieronymous
Nov 25 2012 15:49

So as not to be typecast as a spontaneist naysayer, here is a list of what I consider the inspiring incidents of class-struggle militancy by Walmart -- or subcontracted -- workers:

    1. Strike by 3 dozen temporary warehouse workers employed by NFI Industries, a Walmart subcontractors, in California's Inland Empire last September. Strike was over unsafe working conditions, like extremely high temperatures, lack of ventilation and access to drinking water, and broken and dangerous equipment.
    2. Strike by 2 dozen temporary Walmart warehouse workers in Elwood, Illinois a week later, obviously in solidarity with the California warehouse workers. They struck over wage theft due to forced overtime, irregular schedules, and the lack of safety equipment. Initially 4 workers circulated a petition and were immediately fired, drawing out the strikers. After 3 weeks on strike, the strikers returned to work with full back pay for the time they were on strike.
    3. Days after the victory in Illinois, and given inspiration and confidence by their example, 70+ workers from 9 Walmart stores in California went on a one-day strike on October 4, 2012.
    4. Yesterday, Black Friday, an undetermined number of Walmart workers staged walkouts as part of the 1,000 protests, in 46 states, across the U.S. Here is the most inspiring one:
The Guardian wrote:
The biggest protest seemed to be in Paramount, California, where more than 1,500 people gathered in the streets to chant protest songs in opposition to what they say are low wages that keep Walmart workers in poverty. Organisers have also complained of retaliation by the company against people who speak out.

The nine people arrested refused to leave the street and were peacefully detained, said Captain Mike Parker of the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department. Three of those arrested were striking Walmart workers, said OUR Walmart, which is organising the protests and is backed by the United Food and Commercial Workers' Union. The others were local community supporters.

Worker from the Duarte, California (suburb of Los Angeles) Walmart store who walked out from his shift a half an hour early to join the protest:

Also in Duarte: "George Woodley, a 63-year-old Wal-Mart cashier, was also outside. He is a few years away from retirement, and wants to fight for current and future employees, he said."[from Los Angeles Times]

I liked the way Staughton Lynd articulated this nascent strike wave in the latest Industrial Worker:

Staughton Lynd wrote:
What it represents is the spread of characteristic Wobbly forms of self-activity to workplaces where those practices arise spontaneously because they speak to the needs and opportunities actually experienced by Walmart workers

Perhaps the best example of a spontaneous class-conscious strike wave spreading down proto-supply chains was the 1877 Great Upheaval Railroad Strike. Hopefully the recent Walmart actions can travel down global supply chains and spark solidarity actions across oceans among Walmart production, transportation, and logistics workers in China, Bangladesh and elsewhere.

syndicalistcat
Nov 25 2012 18:44

Good summary, Hieronymous.

Lynd is right that this is the original minority union, direct worker organizing that was a characteristic feature of the IWW in its heyday. Nonetheless, there is still the question of whether the UFCW can capture the organization as it develops. But that danger is not a reason to not support the present actions.

Hieronymous
Nov 25 2012 20:49

I agree that any kind of working class self-activity should be supported. Yet I get queasy when I see top-level piecards like Mary Kay Henry of SEIU weaseling around for the photo-op. Having her and congressman George Miller at a "labor" event means that it will be light-years removed from militancy. I don't know about you, syndicalistcat, but when I see David Bacon at these events trying to exert influence, it's crystal clear that the local Democratic Party is on board too (hence the presence of House Rep. Miller). You can be sure that pro-Obama liberals like MoveOn.org are part of these efforts behind the scenes as well. This kind of Labor-Democrat alliance attempted to co-opt Occupy Oakland pretty early on with the march from Laney College to Oscar Grant Plaza, with a speakers list that included the mayors of Berkeley and Richmond in addition to MoveOn.org leaders. Thankfully, Occupy militants forced them to move their rally away from the Occupy camp.

AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka talks to reporters, beside Executive Director of MoveOn.org Justin Ruben, SEIU President Mary Kay Henry and AFSCME President Lee Saunders, after coming out of a White House meeting with President Obama to policy wonk taxes to avoid the "fiscal cliff."

As Huli pointed out, UFCW has a clear strategy on organizing Walmart. I think it was fully first articulated by UFCW allies like Wade Rathke, who put out "A Wal-Mart Workers Association? An Organizing Plan" around 2005 (published as chapter 12 in Wal-Mart: The Face of Twenty-First-Century Capitalism, edited by Nelson Lichtenstein) [I stand to be corrected if this]. Rathke is the founder of ACORN who recently had to resign over major embezzlement by his brother. He is also the founder of SEIU Local 100 in New Orleans and has been a pioneer in that union (along with former union boss Andy Stern and SEIU staffer Stephen Lerner) of steering away from class struggle and instead building "community alliances," "corporate campaigns," boycotts, and media-savvy campaigns -- in the model of Justice for Janitors.

Rather than the same failed strategies of class collaboration, Walmart workers need some of the early IWW's uncompromising class war radicalism if they are to stand any chance with the world's largest corporation.

One more thing: when the striking Chicago teachers joined a Walmart workers' picket line in October, the "Chicago Idea" of true working class solidarity seemed to be reborn. Striking Chicago teachers and striking warehouse workers walking the same picket line might put the idea of sympathy strikes back in people's minds. Even though a real one didn't happen, Occupy Oakland put "general strike" back on people's lips. Hopefully wage workers will begin to see these workplace struggles in class terms and we'll once again have actions based on solidarity and class consciousness. As Chilli's original post pointed out, this could conceivably happen in defense of workers retaliated against for their actions on Black Friday.

kevin s.
Nov 25 2012 21:18

hi all, I think this pretty much sums it up.

Quote:
UFCW has a clear strategy on organizing Walmart. I think it was fully first articulated by UFCW allies like Wade Rathke, who put out "A Wal-Mart Workers Association? An Organizing Plan" around 2005 (published as chapter 12 in Wal-Mart: The Face of Twenty-First-Century Capitalism, edited by Nelson Lichtenstein) [I stand to be corrected if this]. Rathke is the founder of ACORN who recently had to resign over major embezzlement by his brother. He is also the founder of SEIU Local 100 in New Orleans and has been a pioneer in that union (along with former union boss Andy Stern and SEIU staffer Stephen Lerner) of steering away from class struggle and instead building "community alliances," "corporate campaigns," boycotts, and media-savvy campaigns -- in the model of Justice for Janitors.

Rather than the same failed strategies of class collaboration, Walmart workers need some of the early IWW's uncompromising class war radicalism if they are to stand any chance with the world's largest corporation.

And in my opinion refutes this.

Quote:
Lynd is right that this is the original minority union, direct worker organizing that was a characteristic feature of the IWW in its heyday. Nonetheless, there is still the question of whether the UFCW can capture the organization as it develops.

And I think it's worth pointing out that OUR Walmart is explicitly collaborationist and seeks a kind of partnership arrangement with the company. The "Declaration for Respect" is pure corporatism, which is to expected from a UFCW-driven campaign. I think folks are frankly way too psyched about the "experimentation" in this (I've heard some wobs who clearly agree that it's UFCW-driven, positively refer to their "experimentation") as if this is anything more than a new twist on the same old UFCW attempts to sell themselves as a company union. The same union that sells out its rank and file to an extent that makes SEIU look like radicals, and that's been unsuccessfully trying for years to get into Walmart, starts an explicitly pro-company employees' association that seeks a partnership with the company. If anything it's a pure taste of the kind of corporatist ideology that UFCW adheres to. And this plays out in implicit ways too. Picket marshals insisting on being "respectful" of the company from the same group that declares itself "for respect" is perfectly in tune with the driving ideology of the campaign.

I'd say syndicalistcat is spot on about this: "What did the OUR Walmart workers in this store want people to do? In fact they distributed a small leaflet asking people to be respectful."

I don't see how that speaks to anything though other than what's clear from their declaration, choice of tactics and associations with UFCW, which is that it's either a wannabe company union or an "in" for UFCW which is wannabe company union.

I'm sure there are workers involved who are less interested in partnership and more so in winning higher wages or sticking it to the man, but the way I see it is this is a typical case of a corporatist union using those folks as a cannon fodder for its own agenda.