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For the past two decades, retail giant Walmart has served as a model for corporate America to emulate. Now, by forcing unions to break out of old habits, its workers might be showing the way forward for labor.
Walmart stores and critical parts of its distribution chain have been hit by a series of strikes in recent weeks. These strikes are remarkable for three reasons. First, the workers involved have no union protection. While their strikes are technically legal, they are taking huge risks by walking out. Second, many are not technically employed by Walmart. Rather, they work for a variety of sub-contractors that Walmart can replace at will. Third, despite items one and two, these workers are winning, and the strikes seem to be spreading.
So far, the victories are small. Workers at the Elwood, Illinois Walmart distribution center won full back pay for the three weeks they were out on strike. Workers at the Mira Loma, California distribution center returned to work after two weeks with nobody fired and a commitment from Walmart to monitor its contractors’ safety performance more closely. And groups of Walmart store workers who have struck in cities across the country to protest wages and working conditions have done so without facing company retaliation.
But given the company’s notoriously scorched-earth policy towards unions throughout its fifty-year history, these victories are significant. Usually, when Walmart workers so much as hint at joining a union, they are immediately hit with an army of company managers and outside consultants, deployed with the singular goal of quashing any union activity. Several times, Walmart has closed down entire stores rather than allow even a small group of workers to unionize.
This time, it’s different. And it’s different because the Walmart workers are dusting off some old tactics from the labor playbook and updating them to fit the challenges of modern-day organizing.
The primary old tactic we’re seeing is workers striking without union protection. This harkens back to the early 20th century, back to the days when unions were essentially illegal. Back then, workers wanting a voice on the job had no choice but to go on strike to win their demands. There was no legal recourse, no set procedure for recognizing unions or addressing worker grievances fairly. Workers had to risk everything for the very uncertain chance that their actions might improve their lives on the job. Sometimes they won, more often they lost. Almost invariably, they broke the law.
But workers kept fighting, and as the unrest in the depths of the Great Depression swelled, some politicians recognized that criminalizing workplace protest would not bring industrial peace. Instead, they proposed a government-backed system for collective bargaining between workers, represented by certified unions, and management representatives. The result was the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA), passed in 1935.
The NLRA has nominally been the law of the land ever since, with a few notable adjustments. It set up the system through which unions persistently tried and failed to organize Walmart workers over the past several decades. But unions’ repeated failure to organize Walmart does not show workers’ lack of desire to join unions, as the company often claims. Rather, it shows the degree to which the NLRA has been eviscerated over time. Absent effective enforcement and meaningful sanctions, employers like Walmart have felt free to violate the law with impunity. The potential cost of breaking the law simply pales in comparison to the benefits of staying “union-free,” which has allowed Walmart and others to drive down wages, cut or eliminate pension and health care costs, and erode job security.
Walmart’s distribution centers represent the logical outcome of this approach to employment. Workers in these distribution centers spend all day handling goods destined for Walmart stores. But they are not Walmart employees, and usually the facilities themselves are not Walmart facilities. Rather, they are operated by contractors, and staffed by “temp” agencies, even though the operations run fairly permanently—year round, around the clock. For example, the Elwood, Illinois distribution center is operated by Schneider Logistics and staffed by Roadlink Workforce Solutions, and the Mira Loma, California distribution center is operated by NFI and staffed by Warestaff.
Unsurprisingly, low pay and low to no benefits are the norm at these centers, as are long hours and unsafe working conditions. The web of warehouse and staffing contractors allows Walmart to evade responsibility for working conditions, while giving it the flexibility to swap out contractors if one group of workers poses a potential threat.
In this, the new world of work in Walmart’s warehouses today bears a strong resemblance to that of a bygone era, a time before the NLRA. It resembles the “shape-up” system used on the docks in the early 20th century. Then, longshore workers would line up every morning to see who would be lucky enough to get picked to work the ships that day. Then as now, those who did get picked toiled for long hours for meager wages, with no guarantee that they would have work the next day. Similarly, dockworkers back then had little idea of who their real boss was, beyond the foreman who would or would not pick them in the morning.
What got rid of the shape-up on the docks was workers organizing a legally questionable, incredibly risky strike, one that shut down ports up and down the West Coast, and much of the city of San Francisco for several days in July 1934. It wasn’t legal compulsion that brought the shipping magnates to the bargaining table; it was the disruptive threat to their bottom line that the workers’ risky gamble represented that did the trick.
With Walmart turning back the clock on employment relations to pre-NLRA times, it makes sense that its workers are also reaching back in time for a response of their own. Of course, Walmart workers’ actions thus far don’t come anywhere close to matching those of the longshore workers of the 1930s. But the fact that groups of marginalized workers are now willing to risk going on strike without traditional union protections and outside of traditional collective bargaining relations shows how broken the current labor rights regime is in the U.S. It also potentially points the way forward for unions in this country.
After decades of defeat and demoralization, the Walmart strikes show that U.S. labor is willing to try something radically different and incredibly risky to claw itself back from the abyss. And to do that, they are combining the strikes of old with something new. Unions are involved in the Walmart organizing, but not in the usual way. The workers are not striking for a union contract. They are not even strictly speaking trying to join a union. They are organizing with the help of groups like the Organization United for Respect at Walmart (OUR Walmart), Warehouse Workers United, and Warehouse Workers for Justice. These groups are union funded, but organizationally autonomous. They do not engage in collective bargaining. Instead, they help workers organize to protect their rights, and advocate for policies and regulations to improve job quality and safety. In short, they seek to improve workers’ lives on the job without getting tangled up in the dysfunctional labor relations machinery set up by the NLRA.
Backing such organizations is a bold move for unions, as it can mean sacrificing near-term membership growth potential in favor of much less certain and tangible future gains. More profoundly, it challenges the very foundations of contract/membership-based unionism that have shaped unions’ organizational functioning for over a century. But in an era where union membership levels have largely rolled back to those of a century ago, it is far past time to try something new. In combining the risky and disruptive tactics of old with new organizational forms, the latest round of organizing at Walmart could be just the ticket.
Barry Eidlin, Ph.D. is an American Sociological Association-National Science Foundation Postdoctoral Fellow in Sociology at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, and a Research Fellow at the Center on Wisconsin Strategy.