The Great Walmart Walkout
Labor strife at Walmart is nothing new. But in the retail giant’s half-century of existence, it’s never looked like this. On the heels of a series of failed organizing campaigns, unions and their allies are mounting the strongest-ever North American challenge to Walmart. The new campaign faces daunting odds and extreme versions of the hurdles facing US workers everywhere: employers on the warpath and labor laws tilted against employees. But with a new organizing strategy and a savvy focus on Walmart’s supply chain vulnerability, this attempt has come closer than any at forcing change from the dominant player in our economy—a necessary task if there’s ever to be a robust future for the US labor movement.
Today (literally) in labor history, November 23, 2012: Workers employed at Walmart — the nation’s largest private-sector employer — strike nationwide for better wages and working conditions. Walmart, whose net sales in 2011 were $443.9 billion, pays its 1.4 million workers in the U.S. an average of $8.81/hour. A third of Walmart’s employees work less than 28 hours a week and don’t qualify for benefits.
Weeks into a wave of historic strikes, and days before a planned Black Friday showdown, Walmart has filed a National Labor Relations Board charge alleging that the pickets are illegal and asking for a judge to shut them down. Walmart is no stranger to the NLRB: labor groups have filed numerous charges there accusing the retail giant of punishing or threatening activist workers, including dozens over the past few months. But this charge is the first one filed by the company in a decade. It will pose a decision for a judge and, even sooner, for the Labor Board’s Obama-appointed acting general counsel, who’s been a lightning rod for past Republican attacks.
It’s long been clear that the company’s relationship with its workers would never be “transformed” without dramatic action from the workers themselves. Thanks to some brave employees, and a union open to experimentation and real organizing, that action has at last begun.
It’s not just the workers who walked off the job that have something at stake in taking on Walmart. As these sorts of jobs increasingly dominate our workforce, we’ll be forced more and more to ask not just how many jobs the economy is adding, but what kind of jobs. If Walmart and its ilk supply most of them, families will have little money to rely on, few benefits and chaotic work schedules. All eyes should be on this historic strike and what gains Walmart’s workers are able to make in negotiating higher pay and better benefits.
FILMS: Taylor Chain II: A Story of Collective Bargaining, The Last Pullman Car, Taylor Chain I: A Story in a Union Local, HSA Hospital Strike ‘75, UE/Wells, What’s Happening at Local 70?, Where’s I. W. Abel?