Is Wal-Mart the enemy?

The mega-store's employees are battling for fair pay, real benefits and respect -- and not to harm the company

By Matt Stoller
Published November 29, 2012 1:00AM (EST)

It's been a week since the Wal-Mart strike of Black Friday. Strike, perhaps, is a misnomer. No one tried to stop sales at any Wal-Mart stores. There were no picket lines to cross. And the essence of a strike, to withhold labor, did not happen. These were protests organized to generate headlines on the most important shopping day of the year. And they did generate headlines. If that's all they did, then Wal-Mart won. If they are the start of something, the beginning of an organizing "marathon,” they will be a turning point. It's impossible to know now. Because what Wal-Mart really fears, strikes to shut down their ability to generate massive profits, isn't what the organizers are seeking. Black Friday did not show a real fight. It was like shadow boxing, or a test to gauge the strengths and weaknesses between workers and Wal-Mart.

I spent some time at one of these megastores last week, and what I really noticed were the kids. The best way to understand Christmas in modern America is to watch how children react to the intense marketing directed their way. Kids are the purest representation of our values, because they haven't yet learned to disguise their desires and feelings. They don't yet know they are being marketed to, they want what they want, and they are going to bug their parents to get it. In fact, piggybacking on innocence is a standard tactic in children's marketing, known as accentuating "the nag factor." But they also want to be adults, to help, to be taken seriously.

I was at a store in Palo Verde, Calif., and outside the store there were strikers, mostly black and Latino, picketing unfair labor practices. Organizers from the United Food and Commercial Workers were there, as were supporters wearing T-shirts that say "Good Jobs LA.” The kids of the strikers were handing out leaflets, as their parents marched in a circle chanting the staid chants of the organizers, "This is what democracy looks like,” and so forth. Inside, with mostly white managers staffing the Wal-Mart floor, there were families with their shopping carts, looking for those famous low prices.  Kids were tugging on their parents asking for this product or that product, oblivious to the scene outside. It was a striking contrast.

In this struggle, Wal-Mart is both clearly overmatched, and unstoppable. Wal-Mart, as General Motors did in the 1950s, represents the current American economic order. There's its scale. The average American family spends roughly $4,000 a year there, roughly 8 percent of the American retail market. There are its labor practices, notoriously stingy. It led the way in the ongoing shift in the American workforce away from full-time jobs and toward part-time work. And then there's its technology and knowledge base -- the retail giant tracks every item of its $400 billion annual inventory with a mind-bogglingly sophisticated information technology system. Wal-Mart is so big and knowledgeable that it knows more about the American economy than macro-economic forecasters at the Fed. Finally, there's the culture. Wal-Mart opens its stores on Thanksgiving evening, moving the consumer worship holiday "Black Friday" into Thanksgiving itself. Retail workers give up dinner with their families so they can make sure the rest of America gets to shop after it. There's an irony in getting rid of the one national day of thanks to add yet one more day of shopping. But also, a weakness.

This corporate giant, which makes $600 a second and is so fundamental to America, simply cannot respond to the dramatically underpaid, poor, debt-ridden "Wal-Mart Associates" picketing outside its stores. In Palo Verde, I went up to a Wal-Mart greeter, asking for a spokesperson to respond to the strike. The greeter, a young black man, sent me to the customer service desk, staffed by young Latina women. They sent me to a middle-aged white manager named Randy. Randy wouldn't make eye contact with me, and handed me a card with a "media hotline" on it. "Call that hotline," he told me. I did. Three times. I was on hold for four minutes each time, and just as I was being transferred to an actual person, the phone tree disconnected me.

I went back to Randy, and was told I couldn't get through. He pointed me to a white woman in a bob haircut congregating with the cops. She was the Wal-Mart P.R. person. I went up to her, and she stood with another white man wearing sunglasses, who once again told me that I should call the hotline. I said I couldn't get through, and began nagging him the way that a child might nag a parent inside the store. He picked up his phone, called "corporate,” and handed me the phone. A chipper girl named Kylie listened, and then transferred me to Kira. Kira took my information and promised to get back to me. The only other contact I had with a Wal-Mart official was when I was interviewing a worker. Yet another official-looking white woman was hovering near me, and as soon as I was done, came up to me, handed me a card with her P.R. agency name on it, and took my information. She'd have someone contact me. This was a remarkable contrast to every single worker who was picketing, each of whom was quite willing to explain why they were protesting the company.

Wal-Mart did eventually respond. A few hours later, I got an email from Dan Fogleman, the exceptionally busy spokesman for Wal-Mart. Black Friday, he said, is "the Super Bowl for retailers,” and Wal-Mart would be ready. In terms of the strike, "the reality is that there are only a handful of associates, at a handful of stores scattered across the country, that are participating in the United Food and Commercial Workers' made for TV events." In fact, he continued, "Many of our associates have urged us to do something about the UFCW's latest round of publicity stunts because they don't think it's right that a few associates who are being misled by the union are being portrayed by the media as representative of what it's like to work at Wal-Mart."

I interviewed several workers, who all pointed out that they just don't make enough money. What were they being misled about? Fogleman didn't reply. Wal-Mart, despite its massive size, power and scale, had no answer. It could not acknowledge any problems. It has no ability to communicate anything except low prices. Even its well-paid managers, I am told, talk from the same script.

The irony of the striking workers is that they love Wal-Mart, and they don't want to harm the company. I spoke with a picketing Wal-Mart worker named Dan Hindman, and I asked him whether the strikes, planned for Black Friday, were meant to hurt the company. Absolutely not, he said. "This is a company that is in communities. I mean they sell everything in one store, which is awesome." Hindman is frustrated because he's been a part-time worker for four years, and he has a son that he has to buy health insurance for. He's now $6,000 in debt, because of the healthcare program payments. What he wants is to be a full-time worker, with a better pay scale. He wants to be treated fairly. But he isn't a revolutionary, he sees Wal-Mart as his profession, and a community center.

And it's true. The scale of a Wal-Mart is awesome. There's a Wal-Mart pharmacy, photo development booth, beauty salon, vision care center, grocery store, and a Wal-Mart itself. There's a bank, US Bank, which isn't branded as Wal-Mart Bank because Wal-Mart lost a fight with Wall Street to get a bank charter a few years back. But Wal-Mart does have a debit card, for those who don't want a bank account. There's a Wal-Mart cellphone store. Wal-Mart hasn't just displaced local stores, it has replaced the entire local commercial community with its own fluorescent warehouse low-priced version. And to Hindman and many of the striking workers, that's "awesome."

The striking workers are immensely brave. Wal-Mart has a history of retaliating, and there's a police officer standing nearby with a video camera, taping the picketers. What these workers want is better pay, better working conditions and an end to the permanent part-time structure of Wal-Mart's workforce. And they understand that their leverage is at the warehouse, not the stores. At the rally, a warehouse worker from the nearby Inland Empire talked about how everyone in the Wal-Mart economy was unified in their economic needs, to cheers. Other unions, from the Teamsters to the Laborers to SEIU had representatives at the march. And the International Transport Workers’ Federation, a global shipping union, is beginning to talk to shipping captains that bring in goods from abroad for Wal-Mart's stores about Wal-Mart's labor issues.

It's hard not to have sympathy for these workers. They are asking for fairness, and aren't getting it. They are frightened, and courageous, standing up against the most important and powerful corporation in the world. But there's also a structural problem with the organizing campaign. No one wants to stop Christmas shopping at Wal-Mart, and that's all the corporation really cares about. Fogleman's P.R. was designed to broadcast the taunt that unions would not affect Wal-Mart's bottom line, so there. Absenteeism was 60 percent lower than last year, apparently. How this was possible, whether Wal-Mart developed some new health serum that allowed it to violate the rules of statistics, Fogleman did not say. But his point was valid, these strikes did not damage the flow of the company's profits.  Unlike the sit-down strikes in the 1930s that unionized the auto industry, or the coal strikes that threatened to turn out the lights, no one here wants to deny anyone anything, to make anyone bear any costs.

This is suburban protest, very different than the urban protests that roiled cities across the country in 2011 in the Occupy Wall Street. That protest is now over a year old, and showing signs of maturation. In New York, the largely urban protest movement has morphed into Occupy Sandy, a disaster relief volunteer network serving areas hit by Hurricane Sandy. Another spinoff has created Rolling Jubilee, a program that buys up debt for pennies on the dollar from debt collectors and forgives it. A third group, Occupy Alternative Banking, consistently writes high-quality comments and letters to banking regulators. Occupy protesters seek a transformation of our society. They do not just want a raise, and they do not think Wal-Mart is awesome.  They are not products of the suburbs. The institutionalized labor groups do not really work well with Occupy, because Occupy does not want more. It wants different.

Both the Wal-Mart strike and Occupy are responses to a tremendously unequal society. The former is a more traditional labor action that seeks to skim a bit of the fat from capital for downtrodden workers. The latter is a technology-driven social movement with far more abstract and transformative goals, from mitigating global warming to getting money out of politics to abolishing unfair debt. But both face the same institutional forces, from police suspicious of their aims to a political system dominated by entrenched interests. Neither can really deliver the kinds of resources that Americans want at the scale that they want, from massive numbers of toys at Christmas to earth-moving equipment and concrete in Queens. But both have similar opportunities. American consumerism is out of control. Wal-Mart instinctively can do nothing but crush its opposition and enforce brutal low prices at all costs. It is in the process of destroying Thanksgiving. The Red Cross and FEMA didn't show up for days, and neither has an answer to rampant inequality and shoddy infrastructure.

Which way will America go? The power and money is all on the side of, well, the people with all the power and money. There are some members of Congress who spoke up, like Judy Chu and George Miller. Congressman-elect Alan Grayson (I worked for Grayson from 2009-2010 as a policy adviser) handed out turkey dinners to Wal-Mart workers, and included a letter with each dinner listing basic organizing rights. But the White House won't comment on the pickets.  And there are reasons to think that America will side with Wal-Mart, and the brutal bounty of low prices it serves every day. Fogleman pointed out that Wal-Mart received 5 million job applications last year, and its industry turnover is lower than average. And the workers ultimately were not trying to shut down the stores, or damage the stream of profits in any real way. It's hard to see a winning strategy.

There are reasons to think otherwise that go beyond the leverage workers can exert at warehouses. Wal-Mart has enormous power, and a huge repository of toys that the children inside were longingly admiring. But the kids outside, handing out leaflets, looked like they were having a lot more fun.

Matt Stoller

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Black Friday Occupy Wall Street Walmart Walmart Strike