It’s almost impossible to unionize a Wal-Mart store. They employ the top union busters in the business and they don’t even hide their intimidation of unionization efforts. UFCW has tried for over a decade to break into Wal-Mart but has never had success, despite the low wages Wal-Mart pays and the often extended and unpaid hours that it forces workers to labor.
Of course, workers in the past have overcome incredibly long odds and successfully formed unions but the overall historical conditions were far different then. Today, not only are private sector unions in a long and steep decline, but there’s also not the kind of working-class organizations outside of unions that might allow working people to talk amongst themselves and build solidarity.
Unions have been slow to realize this and adjust their organizing strategies accordingly. Of course, UFCW and other unions have to remain financially solvent and it is in their interest to gain dues-paying members. But when organizing a store or an industry is impossible, other strategies are in order.
And that’s why I like the Our Walmart organization. Rather than lose another union campaign, UFCW has chosen to create a kind of voluntary workers’ organization with dues-paying members that will serve as the closest thing to an advocacy group as Wal-Mart workers will have for the present. Ideally, this organization will show workers that a union can do wonderful things for you, thereby building more support for a true union.
In 2011, lived memory of unions is fading. Younger workers may not even really know what a union is or have known anyone who was a union member. Older workers may, but may either be anti-union or have seen their union fail to keep their jobs secure in the face of deindustrialization and globalization. The kind of common knowledge about unions that existed in 1890 or 1930 or 1955 is gone. UFCW is smartly building from the bottom up, providing support, knowledge, and organizational skills for an organization that can today give solid advice for Wal-Mart workers and help them with a particular workplace problem and tomorrow may lead to the organization of the nation’s largest retailer.