Walmart's Black Friday strikes: a new dawn for organised labour?

Walmart has been extremely hostile to the concept of worker collective voice, and this hostility, in time, led to it becoming a major innovator in anti-union tactics. But labour is organising differently and fighting back.

Alex Wood
1 December 2013

Walmart workers strike on Black Friday in Paramount, California. Flickr/OURWalmart. All rights reserved.

Last Friday was 'Black Friday' in the US, the day after Thanksgiving and the busiest shopping day of the year, it was also a dark day for Walmart, the biggest American Corporation. Thousands of protests gathered outside Walmarts across the US, and in eight cities 111 protesters were arrested as they blocked roads leading to the stores. These actions are part of an ongoing conflict between Walmart and workers who have formed the Organisation United for Respect at Walmart (OUR Walmart).

The actions on Friday are a continuation of a high profile mobilisation which began in the lead up to Black Friday last year when over four hundred Walmart workers walked off the job and joined 30,000 demonstrators across 47 States. Last year's actions included workers blockading the road to an LA store for two hours before being arrested while a thousand supporters demonstrated alongside them. That this mobilisation is taking place in the service sector, and is doing so despite Walmart's famous hostility to unions, suggests that Friday's social media networked direct actions could represent a new dawn for organised labour.   

The late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries have seen an extraordinary decline in trade unions across most advanced capitalist countries. It is in the private sector that trade unions have suffered the greatest dimming of influence. In the US private sector, trade union density has declined from a highpoint of 31.9 per cent in 1960 to 6.6 per cent in 2012.

But membership is just one element of this dramatic decline; just as important is the waning of union based collective action. For example, in the US over the same time period, strikes involving 1,000 or more workers declined from 222 to just 19. The major cause of this decline is the failure to successfully organise the growing non-union sectors at the same time as employment in traditional unionised industries declined. This is clearly demonstrated by US union representation elections, which declined by 60 per cent between 1997 and 2009, while the number of elections won by unions declined by 48 per cent.

Yet a paradox exists: surveys repeatedly show that the majority of workers would like to be unionised. The major barriers are in fact increasingly restrictive legal environments, coupled with greater employer hostility and willingness to use anti-union tactics.

Walmart, as the world's largest private sector employer, is an exemplar of the new world of ununionised work. For Walmart's 1.4 million hourly workers in the US, the above statistics mean insecure employment and schedules, low pay rates and hours, work intensification driven by harsh managerial discipline and inadequate access to retirement savings and healthcare. Yet Walmart does not only represent the nature of employment which faces today's working class, it also helped shape this union-free climate. From its founding in the 1960s - a period when most major corporations saw moderate unions as beneficial - Walmart has been extremely hostile to the concept of worker collective voice, and this hostility, in time, led to it becoming a major innovator in the anti-union tactics which would go on to become so successful across the advanced economies.


One of several striking Walmart workers arrested in Paramount, California. Flickr/OURWalmart. All rights reserved.

Friday's actions are the continuation of a conflict which has been escalating since Black Friday last year. That high profile mobilisation, was followed in June by 100 workers joining a two week strike during which they embarked on bus journeys across the US, echoing the civil rights movement's 'Freedom Riders', and ending with protests outside Walmart's shareholders' meeting. Walmart responded by disciplining fifty strikers and illegally firing another twenty. OUR Walmart hit back on 5 September with demonstrations and direct actions across 15 cities, which led to over 100 arrests. 

'We have to look for new and fresh ways to organise. We cannot depend on [union] elections, we have to find a way to organise on a bigger scale, and it may not necessarily be at first a unionisation drive because we have to look at things differently because we are living in different times.'  -  UFCW Organiser, José 

This mobilisation has required the union movement to innovate and adapt to the current environment, to which traditional unionism is ill-suited. Instead of trying to recruit Walmart workers the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union (UFCW) supports OUR Walmart, which is a workers' association rather than a union and thus does not have to hold representation elections or enter into collective bargaining. It is also less tarnished by prevalent anti-union prejudices. OUR Walmart instead seeks to force change at Walmart through the symbolic damage caused by high profile direct action.

“A lot of traditional organising here's a contract now, let’s work to uphold that contract...  We are much more about taking direct action, and just because the law isn't going to cover you and have your back doesn't mean that OUR Walmart isn't going to have your back... You know we are taking action now and doing something about it now rather than waiting for the law to do something" - UFCW organiser Ali 

This new direct-action-focused form of labour mobilisation is facilitated by social media (in particular Facebook and YouTube). Facebook allows activists to share information and learn from each other. Individuals isolated in their workplace can connect with a larger but geographically dispersed network of other workers experiencing the same injustices. This in turn highlights how these troubles are not confined to their own store; the mobilisation is real and they are not alone in their sense of outrage. Moreover, the number that shares it is bigger than the small group of OUR Walmart members in their store – a minority, even in the strongest stores, due to the fear of retaliation. YouTube allows inspiring videos of charismatic leaders and talismanic actions at other stores to be uploaded, creating a networked collective identity. Telecommunications and online tools also enable the inclusion in decision-making and provision of training and support for members located too remotely to be engaged face-to-face.  

If workplace collective organisation proves possible at Walmart, then it will indicate that at long last organised labour can successfully organise the low-skilled service sector which has grown so fast over the last three decades. Black Friday's union backed direct action which is facilitated through social media networks may be the first shards of light of a new dawn for organised labour.   

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