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


  • 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?

Attached files


Dec 4 2012 22:13

[duplicate post deleted]

Dec 4 2012 22:14

[duplicate post deleted]

Dec 5 2012 07:07

Yeah, but who knows? Class consciousness is at an all-time low, but who would've expected the 2006 May Day immigrant general strike, pulling millions out of work across the U.S.? That was clearly driven by an ethnically limited class consciousness, but a class identification all the same.

During the 10-day ILWU lockout in 2002, when management attacked the ILWU right before a new contract, it was the West Coast Waterfront Coalition created by Walmart and other big box retailers who pushed Bush to invoke Taft-Hartley to end the lockout.

With factory production -- especially of components of everything from garments to electronics -- stretched across the planet in a massive web of subcontracting, sectoral boundries blur. The cans sitting idle on the docks of LA/Long Beach or on ships anchored in San Pedro Harbor or diverted to the Port of Oakland or Tacoma or elsewhere because of the strike are most likely heading to Walmart -- or at least the largest percentage are. This strike is indirectly against Walmart and all the importers of commodities -- including "intermediate" ones -- to be consumed in the U.S. The sooner the workers are aware of this, the sooner class consciousness could keep apace of the changes in the composition of the global working class due to spatiallly dispersed production (AFL-CIO and Change to Win are about a century behind in their awareness of this; it's as though Sam Gompers is still running the show). And the sooner we could start envisioning a global general strike that clogs node after node down supply chains that reach across seas and cover the entire planet.

I think Rosa Luxemburg was correct, concerning this, when she said (my paraphrase): "The level of radical activity is more important than the degree of formal organization."

UPDATE: ILWU Local 63 has just settled a new contract with port management. Now Walmart goods will flow through the port again. Since ruling class interests have solidarity down supply chains, with groups like the Walmart-led West Coast Waterfront Coalition, supply chain workers should too.

Dec 12 2012 06:12

For information purposes only.


The Nation December 11, 2012
Walmart Workers Model 'Minority Unionism'

Josh Eidelson
A leading labor expert says the OUR Walmart campaign, which last month mounted a strike by 500 retail store employees, demonstrates the potential of an oft-debated model: what scholars call “minority unionism.”

“You’re never going to be able to organize store by store by store by store,” says Kate Bronfenbrenner, the director of labor education and research at Cornell University. “Because then Walmart would close store by store by store by store” to shut the organizing down. Instead, “they built an organization that was a Walmart workers’ organization…in stores across the country.”

Bronfenbrenner credited United Food & Commercial Workers Organizing Director Pat O’Neill with crafting a model for “another unionism” for Walmart (OUR Walmart is supported by and closely tied to the UFCW). Bronfenbrenner compared the OUR Walmart approach to “the European model,” in which unions’ leverage and legitimacy aren’t tied to majority membership at any given worksite. “Instead of being 180 workers at one [Walmart] store,” she said, “it could be 5,000 workers spread across forty stores…It’s not enough to be a majority at any of the stores. But it’s still 5,000 workers. That’s a lot of workers.”

(In past statements to The Nation, Walmart has denied retaliating, and dismissed OUR Walmart’s actions as publicity stunts aimed at securing union dues.)

In the US, legal union recognition is premised on “exclusive representation,” secured by demonstrating majority support (through an arduous election process, or a voluntary agreement) in a certain bargaining unit, usually confined to a single worksite. Bronfenbrenner doesn’t support proposals floated over the years to do away with exclusive representation in the United States; she predicted such a change would allow companies to shirk negotiations while propping up company-controlled unions. Bronfenbrenner believes that formal recognition and legal collective bargaining rights are worth fighting for (and supports reforms to make them easier to win). But she said the UFCW has been wise to use minority unionism “as a tool to get to majority union status.”

Bronfenbrenner noted that US labor law offers protections for the right of workers without a recognized union to engage in collective action, including strikes, and prohibitions on discrimination against workers who do (although such strikers can be “permanently replaced” under some circumstances). She said that by organizing collective actions by growing minorities of workers, and punishing the retaliation against those actions with strikes, OUR Walmart has shown that—when faced with a company of Walmart’s size, structure, and anti-union style—there’s a better alternative to focusing on proving majority support within individual stores.

“You organize these workers,” said Bronfenbrenner, “and you engage in strikes, and eventually you get management to give in to some of your demands. And then, eventually, you hope that more workers will come out and support you, and then you would get recognition…. You don’t talk about recognition until you’re at the point where you have enough members” to win it.

The Walmart workers aren’t the only ones practicing a form of minority unionism. As I reported for Salon, New York City fast food workers staged a one-day strike on November 28. The 200 workers came from dozens of stores representing several of the industry’s top chains. While OUR Walmart so far hasn’t called for union recognition, the fast food strikers are demanding a fair process to unionize. But both campaigns are hoping that aggressive strikes will make majority support possible, rather than the other way around.

Dec 12 2012 08:42 was also minority unionism. In fact, almost all union organising in Aotearoa New Zealand is minority unionism. Here, we don't have "majority representation", and can negotiate with just two workers. Yellow unions are also banned. We can't take legal strike action outside of negotiations, but when you are in a greenfield (or brownfield), like we were with fastfood, you in negotiations until you get a deal you are happy with anyway, and can therefore strike.


Chilli Sauce
Dec 12 2012 09:43

Really, I think most unions are minority unions in that even in workplaces with a single contract that covers the entire workforce, it's a minority of activists who maintain the union presence. It's a matter of how much of the workforce we can get involved when a dispute comes up and how much respect that dedicated core has amongst the larger workforce. (Which is not say we shouldn't try to get more people involved--ideally each struggle brings new politicized militants on board.)

That's not the sort of thing we need recognition for, esp if were taking on smart, strategic fights that take an honest account of the sorts of battles we can take on and win.

Incidentally, the new SF pamphlet talks about this as well.

Dec 13 2012 10:25

Hi Chilli,

Don't disagree with you there at all. We don't use the term minority, I understood the meaning as coming in contrast to needing a majority in the US to get monopoly bargaining recognition.

I've read the pamphlet, I'm just not posting on it until someone else starts the conversation. (I think you've put the point across in less words than the pamphlet.)

Further to your point on paper members (union members, not unionists as we say):

SSMP and other retail campaigns in large workplaces are based on a recruitment model. It has been used because we've been a bit lazy, they are large workplaces and we have limited funds, anti-union activity is lower and we don't need a majority.

Union members is symbolic in these situations. If there it seems like there is a snowball, it can be easier to get people on board. It can make people feel they are stronger, especially if the boss is neutral or too stupid to know anti-union tricks. If the boss does push back, in most situations most genuinely symbolic members will pull out. There are always staunchies and people who won't react to the bosses aggression which we've found to be generally 20% of the workforce, which are often people from more collective communities, had union experience before or some individual personal attribute.

Another reason we should fully understand these members and their role, is that in many of our agreements (we don't call them contracts, although workers do) have meeting rights for union members. We don't expect that someone who has been recruited will be a staunch activists, but by being a member we can have meetings with them, build up our relationship which will counter the power of the bosses relationship

It's all art of war shit. Symbolism can have its benefits, as long as people recognise the risk.

We could do it a lot better. We could spend more time getting workers inside, salting (which doesn't happen in NZ that I know of), and doing training of course. But I think the points above still should be taken into account.


Chilli Sauce
Dec 15 2012 21:52
Chilli Sauce wrote:
Really, I think most unions are minority unions in that even in workplaces with a single contract that covers the entire workforce, it's a minority of activists who maintain the union presence. It's a matter of how much of the workforce we can get involved when a dispute comes up and how much respect that dedicated core has amongst the larger workforce. (Which is not say we shouldn't try to get more people involved--ideally each struggle brings new politicized militants on board.)

Incidentally, the new SF pamphlet talks about this as well.

From chapter 5:

Fighting for Ourselves wrote:
a closer look at the trade unions should dispel the simplistic notion that they are ‘mass organisations’ in any meaningful way. It is true that in this country, the trade unions together maintain a membership numbering millions, with several of the largest topping a million members each. But what does this mean in practice? On a day to day basis, the union is run by a bureaucracy of paid officials and a minority of lay reps. These reps – shop stewards, health and safety reps and so on – are often the most militant workers in their workplaces. It’s not at all uncommon that less militant workplaces don’t even have a rep, or regular members’ meetings. When members’ meetings are held, and we sometimes encounter opposition from the bureaucracy to doing even this, typically only a tiny minority of the paper membership attends. This only changes in the course of a big dispute, when meetings may swell to most or all of the membership, and new members may even sign up to participate. So in practice, in the workplace the trade unions are organisations of worker activists which, in the course of disputes, organise mass meetings of the workforce.

Dec 19 2012 01:22


Jan 23 2013 17:15

Just a brief check-in on this........ what's folks doing/hearing/seeing a few months out from this initial situation?

I see theirs a sorta of "friends of the workers" network the UFCW set-up: ....... And bet the ufcw would jump on this if they could negotiate same with Walmart:

Jan 24 2013 01:01

this just came into my in-box:

In Walmart and Fast Food, Unions Scaling Up a Strike-First Strategy

Chilli Sauce
Jan 24 2013 09:41

Thanks for the links Syndicalist. Good to keep the thread active, so keep 'em coming wink

Jan 24 2013 14:28
Chilli Sauce wrote:
Thanks for the links Syndicalist. Good to keep the thread active, so keep 'em coming ;)

Yeah, no sweat. The Walmart and Fastfood stuff were important events. The following period and any of the workers and our own experiences, engagements< I would think, is of value.

Chilli Sauce
Feb 1 2013 08:09

Labor Union to Ease Walmart Picketing

The nation’s largest union of retail and grocery workers has formally pledged not to try to unionize Walmart workers, even though it helped coordinate picketing, protests and scattered strikes about wages and working conditions at the retailer last fall.

The union, the United Food and Commercial Workers, made the pledge this week to avert likely charges from regulators that it engaged in weeks of illegal picketing at Walmart stores last fall.

The National Labor Relations Board said Thursday that it would hold in abeyance any charges against the union and its affiliate, OUR Walmart, for six months to make sure they fulfilled their commitments.

Wal-Mart Stores had asked the labor board to determine if the union and OUR Walmart had violated a provision of federal law that prohibits worker groups from engaging in more than 30 days of picketing that is aimed at gaining union recognition.

Labor board officials had been considering whether to bring such charges against the union and OUR Walmart, a group of several thousand Walmart employees closely affiliated with the union. But on Tuesday, the union, in an apparent effort to forestall any charges, sent the N.L.R.B. a letter saying that OUR Walmart “has no intent to have Wal-Mart recognize or bargain with it as the representative of Wal-Mart employees.”

The union even told the labor board that both it and OUR Walmart would not picket for at least 60 days at Walmart stores, “including confrontational conduct that is the functional equivalent of picketing.”

Wal-Mart Stores applauded Thursday’s developments.

“Today, the National Labor Relations Board and the U.F.C.W. reached a settlement agreement that will bring the union’s unlawful tactics and disruptions toward Wal-Mart, our associates and our customers to an end,” said David Tovar, a company spokesman. “Our associates can now move forward knowing that the U.F.C.W. must stop its illegal and disruptive activities.”

As OUR Walmart and the union coordinated on-and-off demonstrations last October and November at Walmart stores around the country, culminating in a nationwide protest on Black Friday, Wal-Mart Stores asserted that the protests were clear violations of the law barring picketing for more than 30 days when a union is seeking recognition.

At the time, some OUR Walmart members insisted that the picketing was aimed merely at seeking higher wages and ending what they said was retaliation against employees who spoke out in favor of better wages and working conditions.

But other OUR Walmart members and union officials said their long-term goal was very much to unionize store workers. Such statements seemed to buttress the company’s claims that the demonstrations were indeed illegally protracted picketing that aimed to win union recognition.

In announcing that it would not, at least for now, bring charges against the union, the labor board said that the U.F.C.W. had disavowed any objective of seeking union recognition for Walmart workers and had promised to publicly state that commitment on its Web site and that of OUR Walmart and in mailings to the thousands of its members nationwide.

The labor board also noted another union concession — that if one of its regional directors brings charges against the union for violating the provision against illegal picketing, the union will not contest any N.L.R.B. effort to obtain a temporary injunction barring picketing.

Notwithstanding their promise not to seek to unionize Walmart workers and not to picket stores for at least 60 days, the union and OUR Walmart claimed victory.

The groups said they would still be able to picket after 60 days elapsed to call for improved wages and benefits.

In a statement, OUR Walmart said it “will continue to inform its members and supporters that the organization’s purpose is to help Wal-Mart employees as individuals or groups in their dealings with Wal-Mart over labor rights and standards.”

One official with the group said the labor board’s memo would in no way disrupt its plans to hold protests, strikes and rallies over the next 60 days and beyond, although protesters would be mindful not to walk in circles in front of Walmart stores.

In a statement, the union said, “Wal-Mart workers and their supporters will continue their call for change at Wal-Mart and an end to its attempts to silence workers who speak out for better jobs."

A union spokeswoman said it might someday seek to unionize the stores, but would do so while observing the law that bars picketing for more than 30 days.

Labor board officials said that the complaint that Wal-Mart Stores had filed against union would be “dismissed in six months as long as the union complies with the commitments it has made.”

Feb 3 2013 04:05
Published on Portside (
Home > Labor Board and Union Reach a Deal for a 60 Day Moratorium on Walmart Pickets
Labor Board and Union Reach a Deal for a 60 Day Moratorium on Walmart Pickets

Portside Labor [1]
Portside Date:
February 1, 2013
Josh Eidelson
Date of Source:
Friday, February 1, 2013

Both sides claimed victory this afternoon after the National Labor Relations Board announced an agreement to resolve allegations by Walmart that the recent union-backed pickets outside its retail stores broke the law.

As The Nation has reported, in a charge filed one week before November’s Black Friday strike, Walmart had accused the United Food & Commercial Workers union of organizing illegal pickets for the purpose of winning union recognition (the protests were spearheaded by the UFCW-backed group OUR Walmart). The UFCW maintained that it was supporting workers’ protests of illegal retaliation by Walmart, not demanding unionization. Under US labor law, pickets motivated by illegal crimes by an employer have the strongest legal protection, while pickets designed to pressure a company to bargain with a union face the greatest restrictions.

According to a letter released by the NLRB, the UFCW has agreed not to picket Walmart for sixty days, and to distribute a statement clarifying that it is not demanding union recognition from Walmart. If a regional NLRB director finds the UFCW to be engaged in illegal picketing in the future, the agreement paves the way for an injunction against the union. On the other hand, if the union complies with these commitments, the NLRB will dismiss Walmart’s charge.

In an e-mailed statement, Walmart Vice President for Communications David Tovar said the agreement “will bring the union’s unlawful tactics and disruptions towards Walmart, our associates and our customers to an end…This is good news for our associates, who have asked us to stand up to this conduct because they understand better than anyone the opportunities Walmart offers.”

In contrast, OUR Walmart claimed the agreement as a victory on the grounds that it does not limit workers’ right to hold strikes or many other forms of demonstrations. In an e-mailed statement, Lancaster, Texas, OUR Walmart activist Colby Harris said, “OUR Walmart has been able to raise the voices of workers at Walmart stores across the country and this resolution ensures that will continue.” OUR Walmart also noted that it has filed more than 80 charges of its own against Walmart with the NLRB.

Former NLRB Chair Wilma Liebman told The Nation that the resolution “would suggest that there was something” in the evidence presented by Walmart “that precluded an outright dismissal. It may be that it was borderline, and so it made sense to accept an agreement like this.” She noted that under legal precedent, the sixty-day moratorium on picketing would not prevent UFCW-backed groups from using protest tactics like leafleting outside of Walmart stores, or mounting an inflatable rat, or holding a mock funeral.

Reached by e-mail, University of North Carolina law professor and former NLRB attorney Jeffrey Hirsch said Walmart’s allegation that the picketing was designed to win union recognition had appeared “pretty weak on the facts to begin with.” John Logan, the director of labor and employment studies at San Francisco State University, said that “in many ways, what the UFCW and OUR Walmart have agreed to simply reaffirms the position they taken all along…”Cornell University Director of Labor Education Kate Bronfenbrenner e-mailed that the agreement “in no way means the Walmart campaign has been slowed down,” because the campaign would have needed to vary its tactics over time anyway. “The idea,” she added, “is never become predictable.”

Other experts cited today’s de facto settlement as evidence that US labor law does too much to restrict workers’ free speech rights. “Picketing is a form of speech whether or not it is done for recognitional purposes…” e-mailed airline union negotiator Joe Burns, the author of Reviving the Strike. “What this shows is while unions and worker groups are getting creative in devising new ways of confronting these massive corporations, they continually bump up against the limits imposed by labor law.”

University of Texas law professor Julius Getman e-mailed that the picketing restriction currently being enforced by the NLRB “is probably unconstitutional” given the Supreme Court’s 2011 ruling defending the right of the anti-gay Westboro Baptist Church to hoist “Thank God for dead soldiers” signs outside of military funerals. If that speech “is entitled to constitutional protection,” asked Getman, “why isn’t the UFCW?”