Pessimism is easy for the left. Growing poverty, endless wars, and mounting racist police terror make the progressive gains of previous eras seem at best impossible to recreate, and at worst victories slowly eroded by an aggressive business class to the point of irrelevancy. Whenever I feel hopeless, I remind myself: Walmart workers are organizing, creating a sense of class solidarity largely forgotten in a time where low wage service work dominates.
Walmart stores -- cavernous, windowless cement boxes filled with discount products illuminated by oppressive fluorescent lights -- have come to be synonymous with an emerging American culture that prioritizes affordability for customers and profitability for companies. Being the largest private employer in the United States, the company drives the standard for labor practices across the country. Indeed, a 2007 research brief by the UC Berkeley Labor Center found that the entry of Walmart into a community drives down the average wage by replacing existing jobs with lower wages and forcing competing stores to lower their labor costs. The struggle of Walmart workers for higher wages, steady hours, and a non-retaliatory work environment is therefore not simply for the benefit of Walmart employees, but working people as a whole.
On November 12 and 13, Walmart workers from the Sacramento area joined dozens more from across California in a series of sit-down strikes in Los Angeles, followed by a mass civil disobedience on the evening of the 13. These actions culminated with a mass civil disobedience in front of the Rancho Cordova Walmart on Black Friday, a tactic OUR Walmart (Organization United for Respect at Walmart) has used since 2012 to pressure the company to stop retaliatory practices against members of the organization.
The growth of OUR Walmart is unparalleled in the company’s history. Walmart has historically opposed worker organizing. In 1970, eight years after the opening of his first Wal-Mart Discount City in Arkansas, founder Sam Walton personally intervened in a unionization drive in Missouri, setting the precedent for the companies fierce opposition to unions in favor of an “Open Door” policy designed to funnel employees frustration away from independent action.
When workers in a store in Ontario voted in 2005 to unionize, Walmart responded by closing the store. When Wal-Mart meat cutters in Texas voted to unionize in 2000, the company eliminated meat-cutter jobs companywide and announced it would use prepackaged meat instead. OUR Walmart has side-stepped much of this anti-union policy by not seeking to be a union. While various incarnations of non-union worker organizations have failed over the last ten years, OUR Walmart’s launch in 2011 coincided with massive labor rallies in Wisconsin and the Occupy movement, which placed the problem of income inequality in the public eye.
According to a leaked 1997 Walmart internal document titled “A Manager’s Toolbox for Remaining Union Free,” the company deliberately fosters an atomized work atmosphere as a means to discourage union activity. Associates meeting in the parking lot, at each others homes, coming back after their shift ends to talk to other associates, and associates forming “strange alliances” with co-workers they would not be expected to converse with are all signs of possible union activity, requiring management to call a Union Hotline. Former Sacramento Walmart associate and OUR Walmart activist George Finnegan described the daily struggles of poverty many workers face as the “Walmart Limp,” and noted the alienating workplace environment: “They do everything possible to keep everybody individual, nobody knows each others last name, I could see that there was an effort made to keep everyone away from everyone else.”
Walmart’s notorious anti-union orientation triggered George, who comes from a family of labor activists, to search for some kind of representation. After a manager made disparaging remarks about OUR Walmart, he signed up and participated in the 2012 strike.
OUR Walmart does more than raise awareness of dismal working conditions and retaliation against current employees; it has created a sense of shared experience and solidarity between current and former Walmart employees. This solidarity is perhaps more subversive than any particular campaign the organization undertakes. Barbara Collins, a former Placerville Walmart employee who was fired after participating in a strike in June of 2013, spoke to her experience in the organization: “We’re having fun, we’re building a family... building our self-esteem back up.”
Before her dismissal, Barbara was treated as an “outcast by management,” relaying one incident where a manager said in a meeting with associates that “We know we have a member of OUR Walmart working in the store, and yes we’d love to fire her, but that’s not a good enough reason.” It is these situations where the feeling of comradery within OUR Walmart is vital to protecting active workers from the psychological manipulations of managers.
The Sacramento Black Friday strike was the largest yet, with dozens of workers and community supporters participating in mass civil disobedience against the company’s policies. The growth of this organizing, the sacrifices of its membership to build a more just economy, and the inspiration it has given to other dynamic worker organizations organizing in the fast food industry all point to an emerging revitalization of working class consciousness and action that can give working people hope and challenge the wealthiest Americans to concede to demands for higher wages and better working conditions.
- David Roddy, Sacramento Labor Leader (Democratic Socialists of America)