Walmart is the largest employer in the U.S with more than 1.4 million workers. And it’s one of the most virulently anti-union employers. In the handful of cases where employees have managed to unionize (most notably meat cutters at the store in Windsor, Ontario), Walmart has closed stores to prevent the cancer from spreading.
This time, though, Walmart workers are doing something different: They’re organizing by just doing it, without even trying to jump through hoops and certify union locals under the Wagner Act.
The main organization involved in coordinating their efforts is OUR Walmart, backed by SEIU and UFCW. Starting with a walkout from a Los Angeles store on October 9 — apparently the first ever in the U.S. — Walmart workers struck in dozens of stores around the country. They protested in the hundreds outside company headquarters in Bentonville, Arkansas. Striker spokespersons around the country took advantage of the publicity to air Walmart’s dirty laundry, including cuts in hours and other reprisals against workers who raised concerns with local management.
Meanwhile, warehouse and supplier workers have disrupted the Walmart corporate supply chain with wildcat strikes. Matthew Cunningham-Cook refers to it as workers “using globalization against Walmart” (WagingNonviolence.org, October 24). This model — “wildcat strikes on multiple levels of the supply chain” — is “unprecedented.” The worldwide distribution of supply chains, with components manufactured at hundreds of locations around the world, was originally a weapon to defeat labor by offshoring production to low-wage areas. But workers are beginning to discover that distributed supply chains are a two-edged sword:
“… [T]he key to Walmart’s success has been getting low-cost goods to customers at precisely the right moment according to microanalysis of market patterns. But that is also what makes it so vulnerable to work stoppages. Workers at key points in the supply chain can create massive disruptions in the process.”
OUR Walmart plans a nationwide strike on Black Friday — including walkouts, flash mobs, picketing and leafleting — and is encouraging consumers to boycott the store on the busiest shopping day of the year.
A wave of strikes by workers with no ties to any recognized union is a fundamental departure from the conventional model of unionism. But it’s also a return to an older model of organizing — updated for the network age.
Walmart workers aren’t the first to return to this model of networked labor activism. The Coalition of Immolakee Workers — an uncertified union of agricultural laborers centered in Florida — has over the last several years won a string of major victories against fast food chains. Relying entirely on boycotts, support by coalitions of social justice movements, and negative publicity for their corporate targets (what Wobblies call “the open mouth”), CIW have forced Taco Bell, Burger King, KFC and Chipotle to raise wages for farm workers.
My Center for a Stateless Society colleague Charles Johnson notes that this was a victory achieved “not by ‘working within the system’ (meaning, voting, lobbying, and and playing by the NLRB rules), but precisely by chucking the whole rulebook out, ignoring campaign promises and electoral time-sinks, and pursuing wildcat strategies that would have been totally illegal if CIW were interested in operating like a normal state-licensed labor union.”
Read that again: These efforts would have been LESS effective if they’d followed the conventional model of union organization set up under FDR. Sympathy and boycott strikes by workers in corporate supply and distribution chains — one of the most effective strategies ever invented — were criminalized by the Taft-Hartley Act. Indeed, Walmart is appealing to the National Labor Relations Board to suppress the Black Friday strike.
The state has always served the interests of employers. Even when labor got a seat at the table in the New Deal era, it was because big business saw it as in their interest to coopt establishment unions. When it ceased to be in perceived corporate self-interest, the state turned against labor. It’s time for workers to fight for their interests, regardless of what either government or business wants.
This model of activism is just another example of the way agile networks run circles around twentieth century-style bureaucratic, hierarchical institutions like giant corporations and government agencies. Workers don’t need bureaucratic dinosaurs like the NLRB or AFL-CIO to protect them against big business. It’s big business that needs the state for protection.
We stand in solidarity with Walmart workers, and fully support their Black Friday strike. And we strongly encourage all readers to boycott Walmart, and to show support for picketing Walmart workers in their areas. May this be the first of many painful lessons for Walmart on the new world they’re living in.
Kevin Carson is a senior fellow of the Center for a Stateless Society and holds the Center’s Karl Hess Chair in Social Theory.