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Organizing Walmart: Future of the US Trade Union Movement

Wed, Jun 12, 2013

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Since the 1962 opening of his first Walmart discount store, Sam Walton has reshaped the global retail industry into one of vicious hyper-competition among low-wage retailers. Possessing some 8,900 stores with 2.2 million employees across 15 countries, Walmart is the world’s largest private-sector employer, which enables it to establish wages and prices among both its suppliers and competitors. In the US, the company employs some 1.4 million people, or one percent of the nation’s working population, offering dirt-cheap prices to consumers while generating revenue of $464 billion in 2012, approximately the equivalent of Belgium’s gross domestic product. Such statistics, however, come at a high price for Walmart’s employees who earn¸ on average, $8.81 an hour and are subjected to appalling working conditions that have involved mandating overtime work without pay. Moreover, because one-third of Walmart’s employees work fewer than 28 hours per week, they are ineligible for company benefits that include expensive and inferior health coverage. Additionally, some “full-time” employees, those who work at least 34 hours per week, depend on local food pantries to make ends meet.

One would think that a highly profitable employer that provides its employees with substandard wages and working conditions would be ripe for unionization. Various unions have tried but Walmart has taken an increasingly aggressive approach, including violating US labor laws at times according to the National Labor Relations Board, to quash union organizing drives. In 1970, for example, when the Retail Clerks International Union first attempted to unionize employees at two Missouri Walmart stores, Sam Walton hired a lawyer to halt the campaigns. In 1978, the Teamsters Union launched a unionization drive at a Walmart distribution center in Arkansas; the company successfully delayed the vote for four years while eroding union support. And in 1999, the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union (UFCW) distributed leaflets to meat department employees at 300 Walmart supercenters. When the Jacksonville (Texas) Walmart butchers voted to affiliate with UFCW Local 540 in 2000, union elections sprouted up at other stores. In response, Walmart eliminated its 180 meat counters and began selling only prepackaged meat. Finally, after one group of Canadian Walmart workers voted to join the UFCW in 2004, the company shut the store one year later.

Although Walmart has successfully defeated all traditional union organizing drives in its stores, a new form of labor organizing has gained a toenail hold in the retailer’s vast empire. This group, Organization United for Respect at Walmart, or OUR Walmart for short, is in essence a nonunion union. Publicly launched by the UFCW in June 2011 after allegedly enrolling thousands of members, OUR Walmart’s goals are to provide a voice on issues of concern to company employees, to engage in collective actions including nonunion strikes and to redress grievances. Such activities are protected by federal labor law although the group, because it is not an officially-certified union and cannot bargain contracts on behalf of Walmart employees.

Beginning in October 2012, OUR Walmart conducted one-day strikes at various Walmart stores in support of employees who had either been terminated, threatened or had their hours slashed for publicly expressing their grievances at work. These collective actions culminated in the 2012 Black Friday strikes involving approximately 500 workers in scores of stores. While only two workers walked out in some locations, in other stores as many as half the shift struck. In spite of Walmart’s threats to discipline strikers, no additional firings resulted from the Black Friday actions.

While these strikes resulted in bad publicity for the retailer, they neither interfered with Walmart’s productivity nor its profitability. However, if OUR Walmart, or any other labor organization, wants to make real improvements for the employees, it will have to disrupt the company’s global cargo chain at key choke points through linking up with other groups of workers. This can be accomplished at West Coast ports where unionized longshoremen unload goods and port truckers transport merchandise to Walmart distribution centers. Such a strategy would necessitate the organization of the company’s warehouse workers and 7,400 truck drivers. In January 2013, the Teamsters organized Los Angeles port truckers working for Toll Group, increasing their wages from $12.72 to $19 per hour among other contract improvements. The Warehouse Workers United (WWU), supported by the Change to Win Federation, led a successful non-union strike among 38 Walmart warehouse workers in Jurupa Valley, California in September 2012. Both the Teamsters’ unionization and the WWU activities can be used as catalysts for organizing Walmart’s warehouse workers and port truckers.

While difficult, though not impossible, it is crucial that solidarity be created among all employee groups in the company’s cargo chain for carrying out collective actions to force Walmart to improve its wages and working conditions. With the tremendous anticipated growth of low-wage service occupations over the next decade, the future of the US trade union movement might very well depend on this strategy’s successful implementation.

By Victor G. Devinatz
StreetWise Contributor

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