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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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