Credit: OUR Walmart. All rights reserved.
“Americans fear a life of ‘dead-end crap jobs with crap wages’,” proclaimed a recent CNN headline, as polls of Democratic and Republican voters in every state show what everyone already knows: economic insecurity is a top issue in the 2016 presidential elections. This fear, along with anger at “the establishment” for creating the insecurity, is bringing a surge of Sanders supporters on the Left and a dangerous cocktail of unbridled anger, racism and xenophobia on the Right.
In this moment, the story of The Organization United for Respect at Walmart (OUR Walmart), the worker-run organization dedicated to transforming the lives of past and present Walmart workers, can teach us a lot. It is story of collective hope and courage in the face of economic fear. “Care and action support each other,” says Andrea Dehlendorf, Co-Director of OUR Walmart. “They create a foundation of trust that gives people the courage to take great risk and then create change at great scale.”
The courage and innovation of OUR Walmart members can be seen in the infamous and widespread boycotts of Black Friday. They began in 2012 when striking workers, customers and supporters first initiated the annual protests across the country. Since 2012 the protests have swelled to tens of thousands of participants and now dominate local and national media on the busiest shopping day of the year.
In just one year the number of Black Friday actions grew to 1,500 with over 100 arrests, establishing Black Friday as a nationally recognized day of resistance. By 2015 over 1,400 people, including hundreds of Walmart workers, actively took part in the all-liquid fast for 1 to 15 days.
Walmart has become the epicenter for Black Friday demonstrations and the symbol of a corporate culture that is fueling extreme economic disparity in the United States and around the world. The Waltons who control Walmart rank among the richest families in the world. By contrast, many Walmart associates are among the working poor, employed but unable to sustain themselves without public assistance.
Walmart’s business model depends on extracting cheap labor and blocking all labor organizing. Through OUR Walmart’s Fast for 15, former and current employees fasted for the 15-days leading up to Black Friday to shine a light on conditions that leave many Walmart associates unable to buy enough food to feed their families. “There are days when employees choose between paying for lunch or gas to get home,” says Barlage.
The size of Walmart and the role it plays in setting the terms of engagement for other retailers make it a crucial and daunting focus for organizing. While workers struggle to survive in a place that depends on extracting their labor, Walmart uses aggressive strategies to control workers. Many workers like Barlage are harassed or fired for organizing within their stores. The company has been known to shutter whole departments and even entire stores where unions make inroads.
Just a few weeks before the Black Friday demonstrations, Bloomberg Businessweek released a scathing report on how the corporation hired Lockheed Martin and coordinated with the FBI to conduct surveillance of Walmart workers and allies involved in OUR Walmart. As Dehlendorf says “It all paints a portrait of a deeply distrustful, even paranoid, company that has long been at war with its employees over wages, hours, work conditions, and unionizing.”
Conditions like this could easily make OUR Walmart members fearful. Instead, they choose to challenge the corporation’s culture by creating their own, one that nurtures workers and generates enough creative space to go beyond surviving to envision great change. By building an alternate culture from within, one where workers experience care, respect and dignity, OUR Walmart members cultivate courage and plant seeds for transformation.
First steps: a declaration for respect
OUR Walmart began in June 2011 when a group of 100 Walmart workers from across the country gathered in Bentonville, AR to draft and share their “Declaration for Respect” with Walmart. Each of the workers faced fear to speak out: fear of being fired, fear of going further into poverty. The Declaration reflected their stories of low pay, the instability of constantly changing shifts and their need for healthcare.
It also asked Walmart to “listen to us” and “have respect for the individual.” The concerns about Walmart were not just about “having to choose between paying the bills or having enough to eat,” it was about being “discouraged and mistreated.” The statement defined a bold direction and what OUR Walmart was for: Respect, Dignity and Care.
From this first group of 100, OUR Walmart began organizing through a process of deep listening. As Marianne Manilov, Director of the Engage Network and consultant to Our Walmart says, “we wanted to see how people were already supporting each other. We looked for informal places where people had a depth of trust and connection. In the effort to change Walmart it was the networks of private Facebook groups, support phone calls and people who really stood together in difficult times, like not having enough money for groceries at the end of the week, where we saw great potential.”
The small circles, formed organically and informally by workers, dealt with specific issues faced in the stores. It was the small circles – communities of empathy and care – that became central to OUR Walmart’s organizing model. By nurturing and centering human relationships, OUR Walmart began to develop an approach to change that enabled workers to experience deep trust, their own creativity, and the support to take action with others just like them. This was a powerful counterforce to what workers experienced every day, one that pointed to a new leadership model and method of organizing.
Finding a new way: communities of empathy and care
When I try to describe the day-to-day practice of people who are suffering and how they stand with each other, I say that most of all it is done with love. And real love, deep love, changes everything. Marianne Manilov, Director, Engage Network
Small circles begin with a worker reaching out to others for mutual support, whether it’s coworkers at a particular store, a veteran connecting across stores to other veterans, or someone wanting space to talk about LGBT issues with their peers. OUR Walmart supports people interested in forming small circles by providing training on how to engage and facilitate a group. The small groups determine their own focus and structure. Some groups meet regularly and others are more informal; some groups start in person and add in online networking later while others start online and then become in-person gatherings.
For example, says Dehlendorf, OUR Walmart’s innovative online-to-field model was built in collaboration with an OUR Walmart member, Dawn Littman, who spent countless hours communicating with current and former Walmart employees through Facebook. “I noticed Dawn was building a circle of workers who were supporting each other in a private Facebook group called Treasures. Every day they supported each other, shared what was going on in their lives, honored each other as important.” In the past, Dehlendorf says she would have appreciated members’ online outreach and relationship building, but not thought to shift the organizing model and structure to leverage it.
“People in extreme poverty and people on public assistance are often invisible in our society and are devalued on the job by Walmart,” observes Dehlendorf. “This group provided connection and support to a huge community. From there we began to look at scaling a program in ways that allowed people to find communities of support that matter to them.” Members of OUR Walmart have formed LGBT groups, veterans groups, and regional groups. “It’s such a large network of groups,” says Dehlendorf, “that we can barely count them all.”
Internal transformation: leadership from the ground up
I would never have talked about love and family the way I do now. OUR Walmart has totally changed how I approach movement building. Andrea Dehlendorf
As OUR Walmart began using the newer technology of the internet to spread the older technology of the small circle, its network grew and deepened tremendously. The combined technologies enabled the network to connect with Walmart’s 4,000 stores in the US and to workers around the world. Grounded in small circles, their online-to-field approach began changing Walmart’s employment practices, generating an unprecedented wave of national attention and support, and influencing the way people think about low-wage workers. It also transformed the organization internally. As the practice of small circles gained momentum, OUR Walmart recognized how the deep threads of relationship formed between workers also created the potential for bolder collective action.
OUR Walmart encourages leaders to invest time building love, connection, and support among members in need. Their leadership is defined through “being there for each other.” Dehlendorf explains that this model allows innovation and leadership to grow from the ground up. “OUR Walmart focuses on people leading in whatever ways they lead, not just people taking specific actions like signing a petition or going to a march. A distributive network like this builds on existing relationships and pushes power to the edges rather than trying to centralize it.”
External impact: work that is valued, respected and secure
In just four years OUR Walmart has grown into a fierce and functioning association inside one of the largest most exploitive companies in the world. The network now permeates all of Walmart’s stores and has tens of thousands of active supporters. At its core is a culture of resilience and community rooted in the values of respect, care and love – and a model for collective response to the very real economic fears of our time. Combining the power of this network with the power of this culture, Walmart workers have begun to change this giant from the inside out.
“Past efforts to challenge Walmart’s low road employment model succeeded in moving public opinion and slowing Walmart’s expansion into urban centers,” explains Dehlendorf. “Building on this success, OUR Walmart worked to more deeply support the people most impacted – the 1.25 million Walmart workers who have been able to build a network of leaders that is powerful.”
Manilov agrees: “Start with 10 people and ask them, what are the ways you feel seen and heard and cared for? In this space of love and empathy,” concludes Manilov, “you will build a strong enough network to create real change.”
This article was first published by the Movement Strategy Center and is part of a series called Love With Power: Practicing Transformation for Social Justice.