Defying the nation’s top employer and a business model that defines the new U.S. economy, Wal-Mart employees and allies will try to oust shopping headlines with strike stories, and throw a retail giant off its heels on what should be its happiest day of the year. By day’s end, organizers expect 1,500 total protests in cities ranging from Los Angeles, Calif., to Wasilla, Alaska, including arrests in nine cities: Seacaucus, New Jersey; Alexandria, Virginia; Dallas; Minneapolis; Chicago; Seattle; and Ontario, San Leandro, and Sacramento, California.
"Like my mom always said, 'You see something that's not right, it's your turn to fix it," said 45-year-old Chicago Wal-Mart employee Myron Byrd, who plans to be arrested in his first act of civil disobedience today. "And you can't do it by yourself -- you have to do it with others." Byrd said he was driven to action by "high school"-level pay and workplace disrespect, and inspired by the courage of fellow workers and his mother's civil rights legacy. "I'm sacrificing myself, along with others, to do this," he told me, "to show Wal-Mart that hey, I'm not afraid, they not afraid, we not afraid." In an e-mail to reporters, Wal-Mart spokesperson David Tovar said that "planned arrests" were "just another way to make these orchestrated events seem newsworthy," and that "these aren't real protests by real Walmart associates."
Whether today's action is bigger than last year’s “Black Friday” showdown remains to be seen, and likely depends on how you count: Would more protests, and more protesters, make up for a retaliation-fueled reduction in the number of Wal-Mart employees who go on strike to join them?
Wal-Mart’s first 50 years were free of Black Friday strikes – indeed, free of any coordinated walkouts in the United States. Then, 14 months ago, a wave of Wal-Mart supply chain strikes that started with crawfish-peeling guest workers and subcontracted warehouse workers spread to include the corporation’s retail employees, first in Southern California and then in cities across the country. Strikers were members of OUR Walmart, a fledgling non-union workers group that first announced itself in 2011; it draws funding, staffing and direction from the United Food & Commercial Workers union.
For the UFCW, Wal-Mart poses an existential threat, driving down standards for competitors and endangering hard-fought gains. “Our companies are saying, ‘If Wal-Mart can get away with it, why can’t we?'” an employee from a unionized Safeway told me as she prepared to join a Black Friday protest at a Maryland Wal-Mart last year. But the Wal-Mart challenge extends far beyond the company’s 1.3 million U.S. employees, or the UFCW’s 1.3 million members. By pioneering tactics to cut labor costs and avert labor organizing, and instigating imitation among suppliers, subcontractors, competitors and admirers across industries, Wal-Mart is hastening a transformation in U.S. work, toward an ever-more-present future in which workers – whether fast food cashiers or adjunct professors -- lack living wages, workplace democracy, job security or even legal recognition as employees.
Faced with a future of declining leverage and relevance, U.S. unions have taken up a range of tactics on full display in the Wal-Mart effort, including “comprehensive campaigns” that wield political, legal and media weapons against a company’s brand, growth ambitions and consumer loyalty; “minority union” tactics in which smaller numbers of workers take bold public action to embarrass management and engage more reticent co-workers; organizing in solidarity across supply chains and national borders; short-term strikes designed to maximize public engagement and minimize the risk of retaliatory firings; and working with or through “alt-labor” groups that aim to transform workplaces without seeking collective bargaining.
Together, these tactics have forged the most serious challenge to Wal-Mart’s control over its U.S. workforce since the company was founded in 1962. It’s far outpaced the previous decade’s well-funded but anemic union-backed anti-Wal-Mart efforts, which involved bloggers and presidential candidates but comparatively little in the way of Wal-Mart employees. But the current campaign still faces nearly impossible obstacles, some of which have only become more visible in the year since 400-some strikers and thousands of supporters pulled off Black Friday 2012.
Chief among the challenges is this: While U.S. law generally bans companies from punishing workers for organizing (whether toward unionization or as part of a non-union effort like OUR Walmart), it does precious little to avert or avenge such retaliation when companies are dead set on maintaining control. In the months after 100-some strikers staged a several-day work stoppage and protest caravan to Wal-Mart’s June 2013 shareholder meeting, 23 of them were fired – exactly the scenario that’s kept many Wal-Mart workers on the sidelines. While “I do not think I have ever hated any one thing in my life” as much as Wal-Mart, one employee told me shortly before those firings began, he’d be keeping his mouth shut because “Wal-Mart does not tolerate dissenters.”
Wal-Mart denies that it retaliated for striking (but not that it punished some strikers for violating its attendance policy, a pretty specious distinction). The federal National Labor Relations Board announced this month that it was prepared to issue a complaint – similar to an indictment – against the company for illegally trying to restrain strikes; that’s a symbolic victory for the campaign and one step in a potentially years-long legal process that could ultimately see fired employees returned to work.
But what neither Wal-Mart nor OUR Walmart can come out and say is this: While core activists say they’re only emboldened by the fear campaign, by all appearances Wal-Mart threats and firings have so far succeeded in stemming the growth of Wal-Mart strikes. (Alternate explanation, per Wal-Mart: “The opportunity is incredible...We’ve never held a good person back.”) Organizers have declined to say whether today’s protests will see more employees out on strike than last year, but touted growth in total protests, civil disobedience actions, worker support and community backing. (Wal-Mart employee participation in a September 2013 day of civil disobedience and protests – not strikes – also numbered in the hundreds, according to the campaign.)
Placerville Wal-Mart employee Dorothy Halvorson told me she was stirred to get more active with OUR Walmart when she saw the company crack down on her co-workers. But she said such retaliation "has put fear back into some of the people that were thinking about joining us." When three activists were fired in her store, said Halvorson, others "stepped back into like, 'Oh no, we've got to be careful -- we might be fired too.'" She said that because of the NLRB's planned complaint against Wal-Mart, "people are starting to feel more empowered again about doing it."
“My sense is that all the firings and stuff that took place last year; I mean I think that scared people,” said Kim Bobo, whose group Interfaith Worker Justice has adopted 150 stores for protests this year. “I mean, that was the intent, and I think it was effective.” But Bobo, who told me back in June that OUR Walmart would have to get “fifty times bigger, probably” in order to win, said she believed the NLRB’s move “will give the organizing a real lift,” and that “I don’t think the only way workers organize and show solidarity and push the company is by striking.” UFCW President Joe Hansen told me in September that it would be “unrealistic” to expect that “somebody’s going to get 500,000 Wal-Mart workers to walk off their job, “ but that “what I think is happening, and I think Wal-Mart hates this as much as anything else, is it’s calling publicity to how they treat workers.” Similarly, asked Wednesday whether victory would require thousands of Wal-Mart workers to join protests, the Rev. Jesse Jackson told me that "the success may be in enough people saying, 'I respect their mission' and shopping someplace else...The success of the Montgomery Bus Boycott was that people stopped trying to ride."
OUR Walmart and its allies can point to real victories from their already unprecedented activism, from a single store that paid workers for time they spent on strike, to a public commitment to improve scheduling nationwide. Last week’s media onslaught over one Wal-Mart’s employee-to-employee charity collection and last summer’s high-profile showdown over a passed-but-vetoed D.C. “large retailer” living wage bill both show that comprehensive campaign tactics can pack some punch. But it was workers’ strikes that laid groundwork and fueled momentum for both. As past failed union-backed efforts proved, Wal-Mart would sooner concede money than power, and public scrutiny and embarrassment alone stand little chance of dislodging real decency or democracy without a serious threat of escalating Wal-Mart worker uprisings.
So the pressing question, for those concerned with the Wal-Mart-ization of U.S. work, is whether some combination of brave and savvy worker-to-worker organizing, bold minority activism and legal/political/media/consumer/community pressure can partially disarm or counteract the weapons Wal-Mart uses to inculcate a well-founded fear in its workforce. We’ll know more once we see what goes down today – and how Wal-Mart’s still-silent majority responds in the weeks and months to come.