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OUR Walmart, RIP

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Peter Olney’s post-mortem for the OUR Walmart campaign seems more or less right on to me. In short, it simply never had any real support inside the stores that could resist the corporation’s blunt anti-union tactics, including firing workers and did not reflect a clear ability from United Food and Commercial Workers to organize so many other stores in the United States that have fewer resources to fight and could build to a broader Walmart organizing campaign. A couple of choice excerpts:

While the few workers would return to work successfully after this strike and others, the campaign was unable to defend them months later when the company canned them for other alleged violations. These minority actions were often glorified as an example of the “militant minority” strategy employed by the fledgling UAW against the giant auto manufacturers in the 1930s. While it is true that much of the successful organizing of the auto industry was done by a militant minority, it was a militant minority of thousands of strategic workers positioned to inflict real damage on the production chain—not a handful of symbolic “strikers.”

OUR Walmart was a public relations irritant to the company, but it never was a strategic challenge to Walmart’s power or its business model. Perhaps the campaign contributed to recent increases in minimum wages; perhaps it contributed to the growing national conversation about increased inequality; perhaps Walmart’s recent increase in its starting hourly wage to $10 was result of this campaign (though it may also have been the result of tightening labor markets because other employers have raised their wages as well).

But none of these is “organizing,” and none builds a powerful union.

Secondly, the OUR Walmart campaign never really organized around the company’s strategic weak points. OUR Walmart organized brief mini-strikes mostly among Walmart retail workers, but the company’s real strength as a company is its logistics model. Edna Bonacich and Jake B. Wilson write about Walmart’s business model in their essay “Hoisted By Its Own Petard” in New Labor Forum:

Giant retailers like Walmart are no longer simply the outlets for the goods produced by other companies. Rather, they exercise increasing control over suppliers, shaping every aspect of their production and distribution, including their pricing and labor practices. Although their stores and sales are the most visible aspect of the company to the public, there is a whole underbelly of procurement and logistics that rarely receives the same notice.

If we really seek to build power among Walmart workers, it will require the organization of their supply chain.

Organization of retail workers at stores is not sustainable without the company’s proprietary distribution centers (DCs). The Warehouse Workers United effort in Southern California (which was folded in late 2012) evolved into organizing Walmart third party logistics (3PL) providers. These are independent companies that giant big box retailers hire to handle a piece of their supply chain management. Walmart relies on 3PLs for gross cargo moves, but the order fulfillment for particular stores is done in over 200 Walmart-owned million square foot DCs, often located in semi-rural areas. These warehouses do not primarily use temps and Walmart directly hires its own truck drivers for the transport of goods from the warehouses to the stores. These workers are better compensated than 3PL contracted temps, and they have benefits. Walmart knows where the strategic workers are in their operation and they take care of them to try to mollify discontent. This is where power lies in the Walmart model.

Many regional and ethnic markets remain non-union. UFCW Local 770 and 324 in Los Angeles are engaged in a multi-year campaign to organize El Super grocery stores. This is a regional chain in the Southwest with 56 stores catering to the Latino market and owned by the Chedraiu Group, the third largest retailer in Mexico. This battle has gone on for three years and could benefit from the national focus and attention that Walmart got.

If we can’t win El Super, how do we win Walmart? Why not build up your organizing muscle and build up the passion and commitment of the members who see the strength of their union and can be apostles to Walmart workers?

Yes to all three of these points. Obviously Walmart plays the role of gigantic evil corporation to target in the same way as McDonald’s and you can see why targeting it is appealing. It will get a lot of publicity, a lot of people already have a negative view of the corporation (at least compared to other corporations), and a victory would be a spark for larger reinvigoration of the labor movement. The problems Onley discusses however are too much to overcome and that’s why it’s hard to blame UFCW for pulling the funding. I know everyone wants labor to be a social movement but after awhile, you have to ask how was this is a good use of members’ dues. It just wasn’t. Going after the supply chain, building density among Walmart’s competitors, and focusing campaigns on stores with real in-store militancy among workers is simply more likely to be more successful. May not be very sexy but might lead to a lot more real victories for American workers in the end. Including maybe at Walmart.

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  • shah8

    Is radicalism that rejects legal and social norms the only alternative for getting any sort of justice?

    • Murc

      That seems unlikely to work. Radicalism that rejects legal and social norms has an almost nonexistent track record of results in the US; the success stories in the fight for change have almost always been of the “we want to participate in the system as full equals” variety, rather than of the “burn motherfuckers, burn” variety. The big success story in the civil rights era was King, not X. The big success story in gay rights is “marriage equality!” not “we reject heterosexual relationship concepts and demand a new society without them.”

      It’s also an unfortunate fact that the way change happens is that thousands of people die on a hill over the course of many years and decades until someone can scrabble over the wall of corpses they’ve made and plant the flag.

      • JL

        Radicalism that rejects legal and social norms has an almost nonexistent track record of results in the US

        Stonewall? The civil disobedience of MLK? Large chunks of the late 19th/early 20th century labor movement? Maybe you mean something different from what I think you do here (for instance, maybe you mean goals that reject legal and social norms, rather than tactics).

        • Murc

          That’s precisely what I mean, yes. King’s goals weren’t radical at all; he wanted the full participation of black people in American society as equals. What he wasn’t doing was advocating for its complete implosion and reconstruction (his economic views, for example, were well within the mainstream at the time) and more important he was working within the system; working pols, assembling a political coalition, winning votes.

          The late 19th/early 20th century labor movement… Erik has made a whole bunch of posts about how the IWW didn’t actually manage to make a whole lot of lasting gains and accomplish much, because they took stances like “Never sign a contract! A contract locks you into a system we’re in the process of completely destroying!” and that this was not only ineffective, it was a position at odds with most of the workers they were trying to organize, who had no real interest in demolishing American capitalism and industry, they just wanted to participate in it fully and (by their lights) fairly. The parts of the labor movement that had the greatest success were those that wanted to buy into the system, not those that wanted to rip it down.

          The gay rights movement, back in the 80s and 90s, was riven with internal conflict between people who wanted to push for full equality based on a “we’re just like you guys, and we are your equals” line, and those who adopted an incredibly radical “we aren’t like straight people at all and demand the creation of a new society that acknowledges that” line. (I’m oversimplifying both sides here.) Guess which side had more success?

          I mean… it depends a little bit on how we’re defining radical here, I suppose. But there’s never really been a successful movement in America for completely upending the legal and social norms that undergird the country. Indeed, most successful movements embrace it fully: “We love America and want to be fully part of it” and suchly.

          • Hogan

            King’s goals weren’t radical at all; he wanted the full participation of black people in American society as equals.

            In 1954 that was an extremely radical goal. King’s gift (well, one of them) was to express that goal in the tropes of traditional American freedom rhetoric.

            • Linnaeus

              Seconded. King, and others in the civil rights movement, were advocating the rejection of legal and social norms because it was precisely those norms that were preventing black Americans from participating as equals in American society. We have the benefit of 40-50 years of (incomplete and yes, inadequate) social reform as a lens through which we perceive past social movements such as the one King was a leader in.

              I think it’s a mistake to draw overly Manichean divisions between various “sides” within a reform movement. Yes, these sides can and do have significant differences between them, but that doesn’t exclude cross-fertilization between them. The IWW, for example, doesn’t represent the whole of labor radicalism and there were labor radicals working within the less radical parts of the movement. It’s not always a simple matter of radicals vs. not-radicals.

              • JL

                I think it’s a mistake to draw overly Manichean divisions between various “sides” within a reform movement. Yes, these sides can and do have significant differences between them, but that doesn’t exclude cross-fertilization between them. The IWW, for example, doesn’t represent the whole of labor radicalism and there were labor radicals working within the less radical parts of the movement. It’s not always a simple matter of radicals vs. not-radicals.

                Cosign everything in this paragraph. People, including activists in different factions of movements, get way too hung up on this, when there’s typically a lot of cross-fertilization and (sometimes rather wary) coalition work and different factions making progress on different issues or during different stages of the movement.

          • JL

            I’m oversimplifying both sides here.

            Yes – I’m not trying to be an ass here, but I’m an LGBTQ person and activist who’s spent a lot of time amongst various factions of the movement, and you really are oversimplifying. ACT UP had plenty of separatist types (along with plenty of “we’re just like you” types) and they made a major impact. And the “We’re just like you” crowd wouldn’t have had much infrastructure to build on without the more radical faction – the Mattachine Society and similar groups went a long time with limited progress before the post-Stonewall era saw an explosion of groups and activism. LGBTQ activism has long been a mix of both types, and more types.

            And it’s very important to remember that while “We’re just like you” led to major, very important, civil rights advances, it also left large parts of the LGBTQ community behind – trans and gender nonconforming people, homeless kids, sex workers, bi people who couldn’t get bi issues recognized under this framework – and those groups are still behind today.

            It’s also very important, and relevant to Hogan and Linnaeus’ points below, to remember that there was a time, not all very long ago, when an LGBTQ, or even just gay and lesbian, call of “We’re just like you” was a call to upend the legal and social norms of US society. As another example, second-wave feminism sought to overturn long-sacred legal and social norms of US society such as “Men are legally allowed to beat and rape their wives and social norms don’t consider it rape” and had some notable successes there.

            The late 19th/early 20th century labor movement… Erik has made a whole bunch of posts about how the IWW didn’t actually manage to make a whole lot of lasting gains and accomplish much, because they took stances like “Never sign a contract! A contract locks you into a system we’re in the process of completely destroying!”

            So…the IWW was the only union with heavy participation from anti-capitalists of various flavors – socialists and social democrats, Communists, anarchists? Those folks weren’t part of the more long-term successful factions of the labor movement? That seems inconsistent with what I know about the labor movement.

      • shah8

        King spent quite a bit of time in jail.

        And he’s still never got to be old.

        But tell me he wasn’t radical.

        The main reason I asked the question was that Erik segued from talking about failures at Walmart to citing alternative strategies, but those strategies seems susceptible to the same issues that targeting Walmart does, which is that Walmart has conspicuous amount of legal and political authority to do what they do.

        • IM

          but those strategies seems susceptible to the same issues that targeting Walmart does, which is that Walmart has conspicuous amount of legal and political authority to do what they do.

          Yes. I always thought that unions prefer to do these PR campaigns out of weakness. direct industrial action would be much better – but the unions are simply to weak to try that.

          Is the propability of success much better with the proposed alternatives?

    • Sly

      Rejecting specific legal and social norms that only serve the purpose of denying people justice? Yes. There’s a reason why the words “Law” and “Order” often go together, and that reason isn’t that NBC needs to fill a time slot.

      Embracing a reductionist form of anarchism? No. That get’s you nowhere and, like Murc said, ends up failing miserably.

  • KadeKo

    Was it Pearl Jam who tried to organise a big tour without Clear Channel’s octopus of entertainment service infrastructure?

    That effort by the band failed, but I contend it showed what a monopoly CC had.

    Curious how much ‘sore winning’ behavior by WM will be handwaved away by our SCLM.

    • The Temporary Name

      I think that was an anti-Ticketmaster effort wasn’t it? Or are they part of the octopus?

      • Phil Perspective

        It was an anti-Ticketmaster effort. And it showed just how heavily concerts venues of most any type used Ticketbastard for selling tickets to all events at the venues. Pearl Jam found that if they didn’t want to play Ticketbastard-aligned venues then they’d be left playing open fields in most cities. Obviously that wasn’t going to fly. So Pearl Jam has to be satisfied with just trashing the ticketing giant from the stage at this point.

        • KadeKo

          Oops. Yes, Ticketmaster, thanks to each of you.

  • JL

    I find it a bit strange to say that what OUR Walmart was doing isn’t organizing. In the Walmart context, maybe it wasn’t very effective organizing. But it’s still organizing.

    Also, Fight for 15 seems to be doing fairly well. Olney is worried because Fight for 15 is using a similar model. But maybe that means that in Fight for 15’s context that model works, while in OUR Walmart’s case it doesn’t.

    It’s a good article, and I can see that he means it when he doesn’t want to snipe at people doing the work in the field, but he doesn’t always quite succeed at refraining. The social-media-oriented complaints get used against every movement these days, with people lecturing activists that social media doesn’t make a movement. In reality, this criticism is usually directed at people and groups who are doing substantial non-social-media-based work. In a very quick Google search I found references to OUR Walmart canvassing neighborhoods to build support, meeting with city council members, holding drives to contact elected officials, lobbying shareholders. Those might have been the wrong tactics! The tactics that you and Olney talk about seem like they might have worked better! But the organizers weren’t just seeking retweets and Facebook likes and calling it a movement, and implying such is kids-these-days-with-their-technology sniping.

    • I think Fight for $15 works a little better because it isn’t targeting a single company nor has any actual real hope to unionize these workplaces. It’s effective because it is ultimately appealing for higher minimum wages across the board.

      • Bruce Vail

        What? The Walmart campaign is ultimately appealing for higher minimum wages across the board, because Walmart is the largest employer in America and sets the standard for the entire retail industry.

        Read your own labor history posts, Erik. It took 50 years to establish an effective union in the steel industry. Do you think that was a fluke?

  • Bruce Vail

    Impressing on the public mind that Walmart is a ‘bad actor’ in the corporate world was an important goal and OUR Walmart did a good job in that regard.

    • I suppose so but I’m not sure how revealing that actually is to people.

      • Bruce Vail

        I think it is revealing to a lot of people. Every news outlet in America feels compelled to cover Black Friday as a retail ‘news’ event every year. OUR Walmart made a great start in associating Black Friday with job actions against WalMart. This should be revived as the Walmart campaign goes forward, I’d say.

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