Posted 3 months ago on Jan. 31, 2013, 10:25 a.m. EST by repubsRtheprob
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In Walmart and Fast Food, Unions Scaling Up a Strike-First Strategy Wednesday, 30 January 2013 10:55 By Jenny Brown, Labor Notes | Report
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Small but highly publicized strikes by Walmart retail and warehouse workers last fall set the labor movement abuzz and gained new respect for organizing methods once regarded skeptically.
“The labor movement is all about results,” says Dan Schlademan, who directs the Making Change at Walmart project of the Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW). “The results are creating the energy.”
Walmart is a particularly rich target because the company is so large that it sets wages and prices among suppliers and competitors.
What’s the strategy behind the latest surprising wave of activism?
Like most new organizing in the private sector, decades of attempts to unionize Walmart stores in the U.S. and Canada have been met with firings, outsourcing, and even closings.
So retail workers who staff the stores, warehouse workers who move Walmart’s goods, and even guest workers who peel crawfish for a supplier are ignoring the path laid out by U.S. labor law, in which workers sign a petition asking to vote on a union.
Instead, they’re exercising their rights to redress grievances together, whether a majority can be rallied to support the effort or not.
One-day strikes in dozens of stores last October and November protested illegal retaliation against those who had spoken up at their workplaces and joined the Organization United for Respect at Walmart. Several had been fired and many experienced threats and cuts in hours for their participation.
“We have a way to respond to illegal actions,” Schlademan said: “the power of the strike.”
SPREAD TO FAST FOOD
Last summer, following the OUR Walmart model, the Service Employees (SEIU) started funding an effort to organize fast food workers in New York, Chicago, and other cities.
Inspired by the Walmart warehouse and store strikes, workers launched one-day strikes in New York City a week after Black Friday. Workers marched back in with clergy, elected officials, and press, shaming managers who had hoped to retaliate, and reinstating one Wendy’s striker when her manager fired her for participating.
But the next steps are far from certain. “Are you trying to have a union like we have now? If so I would say forget it, don’t do it,” said Rick Smith, who was involved in a 2005 pilot project to organize Walmart in Florida. Instead, he advised activists to “figure it out as you go along.”
That’s pretty much the attitude of organizers who are making interesting things happen in warehouses, retail, restaurants, fast food, and along Walmart’s supply chain from the ports to the stores.
Their efforts are part “non-majority” organizing on the job site, part strategic besmirching of their employers’ brands, part community-labor coalescing—and several parts chutzpah.
BORN OF DESPERATION
“The labor movement has tried a range of strategies over the last 20 years,” said Mark Meinster, who’s organizing Walmart warehouse workers in Illinois. “Comprehensive campaigns, neutrality agreements, NLRB organizing—and while we’ve learned a lot through those strategies, none of it has reversed the decline.
“So now we’re at a point where there’s openness to new strategies. There’s an understanding that we won’t get labor law reform soon, that employers will continue to take a more aggressive stance toward workers and their unions, and so unions are looking at ways to impact those employers economically.”
Meinster also praised the skills labor has learned in its decades of operating from weakness: research, using the law, capital strategies, international work. The trick now, he said, is to combine those staff skills with building leaders in the workplaces and a willingness to use pre-majority organizing and, if workers so choose, strikes.
“I don’t know how to grasp corporate attention,” said Martha Sellers, a cashier in Paramount, California, who struck on Black Friday. “I expect we get to them through their paycheck.”
Despite Walmart’s fearsome reputation, the Black Friday strikes did not produce additional firings. “We’re not assuming a new reality inside the company, but it’s interestingly quiet,” said Schlademan.
The walkouts involved some 500 workers in dozens of stores. In some stores as few as two workers struck; in others half the shift walked out.
Around 13 walked out of the Walmart in Paramount. “We were all scared, but we did it,” said Sellers. Though the store is now more understaffed than ever, managers have not taken action against the strikers, she said, and are “being very careful about what they say.”
That calm may be because the public eye is on Walmart. The actions at 1,000 stores held by community supporters, ranging from small informational pickets outside to musical flash mobs inside, gained plenty of media glare.
Walmart also wants to protect its image because it’s trying to convince city councils to let it build in urban areas that have thus far rejected the big box, markets like New York City and Seattle. Having paved rural and suburban America with its stores, Walmart is desperate to grow in cities.
Nick Allen of Warehouse Workers United believes Walmart cares about “reputational harm” that can’t be quantified, like the hit the company took when 112 apparel workers at a supplier were burned to death in Bangladesh. “When you’re the biggest employer it puts a level of scrutiny on you,” he said.
But even with Walmart on its best behavior for now, it’s unclear—even to organizers—how to take today’s retail effort to the next level. Many worker complaints, such as those about health care or pay, hit the heart of Walmart’s low-road business model and solutions can’t be extracted from local store managers.
For example, workers want regular shifts. But managers get bonuses (and preserve their jobs) by keeping labor costs down using a hated just-in-time scheduling system, said Nelson Lichtenstein, a historian who writes about Walmart.
Still, “Walmart will accommodate various kinds of pressures,” said Lichtenstein, as long as it doesn’t mean recognizing a union. The penny-pinching corporation contradicted its own forecasts and raised wages in 700 of its stores in 2006, according to recently revealed company communications. The increase was likely a result of vigorous non-majority organizing in 2005 and 2006 (see sidebar).
And on January 15 there was a sign the strikes have made top management defensive about scheduling. Walmart CEO Bill Simon announced vague intentions to change the company’s scheduling practices, which elicited a skeptical response from OUR Walmart: “We need these words to translate into real action.”
Continued in comments