By DANIEL XAVIER
During the course of the past two months, retail super-giant Walmart, notorious for its low wages, unfair labor practices, and union-busting agenda, faced the first strikes in the United States since the company’s founding in 1962. In September, warehouse workers contracted in Walmart’s supply chain walked off the job in Illinois and California, demanding safer working conditions and unpaid wages they were owed. By October, strikes and other actions protesting Walmart’s labor abuses had spread to a dozen states, including Arkansas, Washington, and Michigan.
The showdown began on Sept. 12 in Inland Empire, Calif., when warehouse workers struck over grueling working conditions and unpaid wages. Their strike culminated in a dramatic six-day-long, 50-mile march to City Hall in Los Angeles. The workers withstood grueling Southern California heat, as thermometers reached 108 degrees during the march; but they proclaimed that the high temperatures paled in comparison to those they faced on the job.
These workers, mostly Latin@ immigrants, face appalling job conditions in Walmart’s distribution chain. Temperatures can reach 120 degrees in the metal-box containers that low-wage contractors fill with products destined for retail stores and distribution centers. The warehouses themselves are open structures, with no walls to shield employees from elements such as dust, heat, and precipitation. The pallets of boxes, which are moved via carts, range up to 250 pounds and often collide with the shins of unsuspecting workers, resulting in bruises and other injuries. In addition, employees are often forced to work through breaks and meals and can face harassment from management for even stopping to fill up a bottle of water during their shift. Many are also called into work early and are required to stay late without pay.
On Sept. 28, after being on strike for over two weeks, the California warehouse employees returned to work, having secured key demands for safety improvement in the workplace. Their struggle garnered national and international recognition, with workers from countries such as South Korea, Chile, and Bangladesh sending messages of support to the Walmart strikers.
Simultaneous with the walkouts in California, warehouse workers in Elwood, Ill., employed by RoadLink, a third-party distribution company hired by Walmart, presented a petition to their management on Sept. 15 demanding better conditions on the job. Immediately, management responded by firing four leaders of the petition drive and threatened layoffs against others who dared to organize. This tipped off a strike that would last for three weeks, drawing in community support for the workers’ struggle.
On Oct. 1, nearly 650 people amassed outside the distribution center in Elwood, leading to a shutdown of operations that Walmart claims cost it $8 million. Police donning riot gear loomed over the demonstration while the protesters showed solidarity with the warehouse workers. Seventeen people were arrested for civil disobedience, as they temporarily blocked a road.
By Oct. 6, after presenting a petition with 100,000 signatures to Walmart management in Chicago the previous day, the Elwood warehouse workers won their key demands and returned to work. Their victory included full compensation for the duration of the strike, installation of ceiling fans in the warehouse, shin guards and other protective gear provided by management, and a series of other protocols designed to create a safer work environment.
Retail workers walk out
The modest victories secured by Walmart supply workers in Illinois and California inspired others to take action. On Oct. 5, sixty retail workers went on strike at Walmart in Los Angeles. Within a week, the retail employee strike, organized by the UFCW-affiliated group, OUR Walmart, spread to over a dozen states and encompassed hundreds of workers. As many as 200 retail employees held a protest at Walmart’s headquarters in Bentonville, Ark., on Oct. 10, demanding that the multinational corporation give attention to their grievances.
While most of the warehouse workers in Walmart’s distribution chain are hired through temp agencies or third-party contractors, the retail associates, totaling 1.4 million workers, are employed directly by the company. Most of these employees barely scrape by on the wages paid by Walmart, with the average wage being less than $9/hour. Meanwhile, according to The Huffington Post, the Walton family, who owns the Walmart chain, is worth $89.5 billion, or the equivalent of the poorest 41.5 percent (nearly 125 million people) of Americans combined.
As we go to press, retail employees are threatening to strike on Black Friday (Nov. 23), which is the biggest shopping spree day of the year. According to OUR Walmart’s website, forrespect.org, the group’s members “are coming together from across the country and are refusing to work on Black Friday in protest of Walmart’s continuing retaliation against Associates who speak out for better pay, affordable healthcare, improved working conditions, fair schedules, more hours, and most of all, respect.”
Direct action: substitute for unions?
One factor that makes these strikes significant is that the workers do not have a labor union; many are organized in workers’ centers instead. The three main workers’ centers involved in the movement are Warehouse Workers for Justice (WWJ), affiliated with the union UE in Illinois; Warehouse Workers United (WWU), part of the Change to Win Federation in California; and Organization United for Respect or OUR Walmart, which is associated with the United Food and Commercial Workers Union (UFCW).
Workers’ centers play an important role among unorganized employees and the community. They promote labor advocacy, build ties with community groups, organize protests and “direct actions,” and perform important support roles for low-income working people. Many of these groups have ties or explicit support from various labor unions.
However, when it comes to organizing on the job there is no substitute for collective action and unionization. Workers’ centers can serve as an important preliminary to union organizing on the job, and some groups certainly do have this perspective—for instance, the United Electrical Workers (UE). However, the Walmart strikes have prompted some commentators to argue that workers’ centers can replace the need for organizing a labor union in the workplace.
Barry Eidlin, a postdoctoral fellow at UW-Madison, wrote in Counterpunch: “The workers are not striking for a union contract. They are not even strictly speaking trying to join a union. They are organizing with the help of groups like the Organization United for Respect at Walmart (OUR Walmart), Warehouse Workers United, and Warehouse Workers for Justice. These groups are union funded, but organizationally autonomous. They do not engage in collective bargaining. … In combining the risky and disruptive tactics of old with new organizational forms, the latest round of organizing at Walmart could be just the ticket.”
Workers’ centers certainly play an important role and are useful in building support for labor struggles; but ultimately, if working people expect to solidify the gains they’ve secured in the workplace, all their co-workers must be organized together to bargain and take action as a unified front.
A great example of the power that workers can exercise through unions, when they have a leadership oriented to class struggle and collective action, is the recent teachers’ strike in Chicago. When Mayor Rahm Emanuel and the Democratic Party went on the offensive against Chicago’s teachers, cancelled previously negotiated salary increase, demanded changes to evaluations and pay structures, and fought for the implementation of many other austerity measures aimed at crushing the union, the Chicago Teachers’ Union (CTU) organized a militant strike to defend against the onslaught.
Through a broad campaign to build community support for the strike, with picket lines and rallies outside the schools and an effective educational campaign, highlighting that teachers were fighting for better schools, the CTU was able to beat back the offensive.
Class-struggle unionism must also elevate workplace struggles to the political level. The need for a labor party, based on workers and democratic unions ready to fight for the interests of the working class as a whole, is becoming more evident with each new struggle that erupts and each new concession forced on the 99 percent by the capitalist class.
A labor party could unite the struggles of Chicago teachers, Walmart employees, and all other workers into a fight for a better livelihood, which is necessarily a political struggle.
Video of Connecticut Nov. 23 action at Walmart: http://youtu.be/vxFyUwsgkSs