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Thursday, November 21, from 4-7 PM.
It’s definitely not undercover work, walking into a Wal-Mart wearing a t-shirt advocating unionization. But I and several dozen others did just that in Brockton, Massachusetts today. We went armed with shopping lists, the goods headed for local charities, and watched the chattels of the largest retailer in the US scurry about, whispering in fear, then rallying their forces over the store intercom, then finally using the local police to tamp down a potential outbreak of worker rights in their fiefdom.
In the next lot over from the store stood an abandoned donut shop that served as headquarters. The workers staffing the action, unlike Wal-Mart, were from my home town of Brockton, and worked at a regional supermarket chain. Their local of the United Food and Commercial Workers, like many of their counterparts across the country, had chosen a nearby Wal-Mart for this day of action. Some were veterans of the Bentonville, Arkansas protest at the corporate headquarters of their adversary. I had missed the first wave of t-shirted pro-union shoppers, so as we waited for more people to arrive, I got to know my brothers and sisters from the labor movement.
They were all very well-informed about the nature of Wal-Mart and we traded facts from news stories and books, but the local roots of this effort were also encouraging. One of the key organizers on-site had worked for the supermarket for many years, one which older Brocktonians remembered under another name. He had worked at the one that we used to shop at on the east side of town. I guess it’s a small world when predatory corporations piss off enough people. They also spoke of the first group to enter the store just after 4PM. Some of those who arrived early saw the store management herd the employees outside the store for some sort of conference, complete with police standing by. On entering the store, one man was asked to leave for taking pictures but the group, which numbered well over 50, made their presence felt.
At 6PM we had a small group for a sortie into the store. Spirits were high and it was a surreal experience, walking across the parking lot past the security cameras, the rent-a-cop, the Wal-Mart security, and a Salvation Army bell-ringer, bringing awareness into the bright white box of predatory capitalism. I was first through the door and looked about for the security cameras. I wasn’t disappointed; there were easily a few dozen of them in their shaded globes reaching down from above. While none of us were there to steal, I imagined a postmodern court where we might be prosecuted for “attempted theft of employees’ minds, a real possession of the corporation, constituting felony in the first degree.” Aside from that flight of fancy, it was unsettling to know that you were being watched at every step. I dismissed that discomfort by remembering that there are few public spaces left in the US where one is not under some form of surveillance. So, I thought, let them watch us have a good time shopping for charity and having a enlightened laugh at the corporation’s expense.
While in the store I had remarkable trouble finding baby wipes, my chosen item, and had to search out an employee. This was no easy task as the management had the workers visibly skittish or cowed (until some of them speak out, we can only speculate at what lies they were forced to listen to prior to the action). After passing an employee with a walkie-talkie murmuring into it “They’re back, pass the word, they’re back,” I did succeed in finding a young man straightening an end cap and asked him where I would find baby wipes. In a monotone and without looking at me, he pointed out “In the back corner of the store, that way.” So I ambled down to the back and chose items for my first Wal-Mart purchase in years.
Returning from the nether regions of the store, I met one of my comrades-in-shopping in the pillow aisle and we strolled around for a several minutes, discussing the state of the Wal-Mart workforce and why it was so important that management keep them in the dark. She told me that there had been calls placed to the UFCW local by management, telling them that the employees didn’t need a union. They replied that it was the employees decision, not management’s. A few times we had to step aside for employees moving goods here or there. They were courteous, as were we. We made our way to the checkout lanes, along the way meeting the friend who sent me an e-mail about the action. I chose a line with only one woman in front of me, with a shopping cart filled to the brim.
Waiting in line for five full minutes, I imagined how many places the videotape of we supporters would be copied and stored, then did the math on how the money used for security and anti-union tactics would easily cover a decent standard of living for their employees. It’s the same situation down through the ages, individualist brainwash resulting in a divided and abused workforce. I looked at the humorless girl behind the register and remembered myself before I broke free of the dominant anti-union histories. At least these Wal-Mart workers were getting exposure to a different idea, and I know many will take the experience with them. If they started making the calls to the phone number on the shirt, or visited the website, life would become very complicated for the corporate captains of Wal-Mart. They are as vulnerable to workplace democracy as any of the commercial titans which have been brought to heel in the US. It was exciting to envision these workers (many of them young, female, and of color) having a voice in their own working conditions.
But the action wasn’t over yet.
I met one of my carload at a bench past the registers, and we sat to wait for the other three of us. We chatted about the event and how ridiculous the management looked, and wondered aloud what would become of the employees. I remarked that we in the US are having to re-learn all the lessons that our great-grandparents learned during the Great Depression, and that this was a fine place to get started. Two more of us arrived and we were waiting for the last person when a police officer approached us and told us we had to leave. The store manager had given him orders to evict us.
We all protested, led by one of our number who put up an inspired, unstinting defense- we had a right to wait for someone, we weren’t disrupting anything, there are other people waiting, she was tired and wanted to sit for a moment, etc. She was incredibly good at this. Finally the cop said “Either you leave or we take a ride.” We took his badge number and drifted outside, where he soon followed for more discussion. He continued getting the worst of the exchange until he just walked back inside. Wow, that woman was really a scrapper. A few thousand like her and Wal-Mart would be begging for collective bargaining.
As we gathered our last person and walked to the car, he told us what took him so long. Apparently they had to do an extensive price check on his item, then he had to exchange it for another. It was hilarious. But not as funny as the plague of perspiration and anxiety that surely descended on the Bentonville headquarters of Wal-Mart.
DAVE PATTEN lives in Tauton, MA. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org
Post Script: I did not receive a happy face sticker on entering the store and plan to lodge a complaint with the home office.
http://walmartdayofaction.com (map of actions by state)
http://www.walmartyrs.com (good info & links on Wal-Mart)
http://www.ufcw791.org (the local for the Brockton action)
“In Sam We Trust” by Wall Street Journal reporter Bob Ortega. A detailed, well-documented history which includes the competition between KMart and Wal-Mart.
“How Wal-Mart is Destroying America (and the World)” by Bill Quinn. Brief and rousing. Includes info on investigations and lawsuits against Wal-Mart, accounts by former employees, and suggestions for fighting back.