The Walmart Rebellion
> Editors, The Nation
November 28, 2012, in the December 17, 2012
Walmart workers made history on Black Friday. When some 500 workers walked
off the job in 100 cities, they pulled off the biggest US strike against the
biggest private employer in the world, as well as the strongest-ever
challenge to the dominant player in our economy. Walmart, which directly
employs one out of every 100 US workers, has pioneered a business model
based on low labor costs-and perfected the unionbusting tactics that keep
them that way. The Walmart model has been forced on the company's
contractors and suppliers and embraced by many of its competitors. That
makes this year's work stoppages against the retail giant the most
significant US strike wave of the twenty-first century.
This is an indictment not just of Walmart's business model but of our broken
labor laws. Walmart workers, like counterparts in other industries, confront
a grim truth: although American law promises to "promote" collective
bargaining, it has proved an utter failure at restraining employers set on
evading it. Companies stonewall or intimidate employees at will, and absent
canny strategy and inspired organizing, the law leaves workers hanging out
The Black Friday strikers were emboldened by the knowledge that the law bans
permanently replacing workers who strike because of employer retaliation;
Walmart clearly had retaliated against activist workers, deploying a battery
of sketchy firings, steep cuts in hours and surveillance of employee
activists. But workers also know that Walmart has defied such laws with
impunity in the past. The law is supposed to punish companies that retaliate
against their workers; by going on strike, workers showed they knew they'd
have to do that themselves-and at no small risk. Similarly, while the law
promises protections like workplace safety, Walmart employees-like
generations before them-find they must organize and strike to secure such
Union-backed nonunion labor groups like OUR Walmart have grown rapidly over
the past two decades, as have "comprehensive campaigns" that leverage media,
political and consumer pressures against employers. But although they are
useful, too often such campaigns-like the one waged by some unions against
Walmart a few years ago-ask too little of the workers themselves. As Walmart
workers have shown this fall, there's no substitute for a strike.
What next? Organizers promised that this latest strike would signal a "new
permanent reality" at Walmart; as they picketed on Black Friday, workers
were already discussing when they'd walk off the job again. To escalate the
pressure on Walmart, the campaign will have to build on two key strengths.
First, it will have to remain a movement of workers throughout Walmart's
supply chain, including warehouse workers, who helped spur their retail
counterparts to strike but played a lesser role on Black Friday. Those
workers are best situated to disrupt Walmart's just-in-time logistics.
Consider that perhaps the world's greatest labor victory against Walmart
came after warehouse workers in Britain threatened to keep beer from
reaching fans in time for the 2006 World Cup.
Second, the campaign will have to remain deeply rooted in individual stores,
developing worker leaders who can organize co-workers to take immediate
action against abuses. The new focus on pushing employees to enlist
co-workers in confronting local management-rather than just flying workers
to press conferences at Walmart headquarters in Arkansas-helps explain why
this campaign has outpaced its predecessors. It's the only way the Walmart
insurrection can grow from strikes of hundreds to strikes of thousands.
Walmart is still a formidable foe: gigantic, flush with money and political
juice, undeterred by legal constraints, and willing to endure great costs
and terrible press to maintain its dominion over employees. But if Walmart
is allowed to keep on abusing the basic rights of its workers, we'll be in
for a low-wage economy, an even weaker labor movement and a diminished
democracy. Walmart workers have a long, hard road ahead. But they've already
revived hope that there is an alternative to Walmartocracy.
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