Members of OUR WalMart, a group fighting to improve working conditions for WalMart employees, staged actions across the country last week to draw attention to their cause, with police arresting 100 protesters in more than ten cities. Using a combination of innovative civil disobedience, flash mobs, marches and more, members protested WalMart’s retaliatory actions directed at union organizers, including firings and suspensions of workers involved in labor organizing.
Under the law, workers have the right to organize, but WalMart isn’t interested in playing by the rules. When members of OUR Walmart organized a strike in June, the company responded by firing and suspending workers for failing to report for work, even though they had informed their supervisors that they were participating in a strike. This is a classic tactic in response to worker organizing: companies hope that by targeting high-profile organizers, they can quash a local union organizing attempt in the nascent stages by eliminating the people who can pull it together and intimidating other workers.
What happened in response wasn’t quite what WalMart was hoping for, because OUR Walmart took it as a personal challenge. Instead of having employees walk off the job, though, they had people dance, sing, march and rally in support of the workers. Former workers entered WalMart stores to “Step for Justice” (see the video below) while members of the public including clergy, union activists and more joined them as backup.
OUR Walmart has an interesting and innovative organizational strategy that demonstrates the labor movement is still flexible, ready to adapt to the times and prepared to do what it takes to secure better conditions for workers. Supported by the United Food and Commercial Workers, it asks dues of only $5 per month and has a highly decentralized strategy. Workers anywhere can start their own local movements, get resources from the parent organization and participate at any level. OUR Walmart also focuses on getting results fast with a fast-striking (no pun intended) approach that puts WalMart on the defensive rather than waiting for the store to respond to requests for negotiations.
What members want isn’t so unreasonable: $13/hour (still below the living wage in many places), affordable health care, a system for handling grievances and adequate hours. And they’re threatening that if WalMart doesn’t respond by Black Friday, the store may be facing the most ferocious organized labor action it has ever seen. That threat may not be empty; thanks to growing labor organizing across the United States, workers are more determined than ever before when it comes to their rights, and they’re turning out in solidarity with each other in front of fast food restaurants, retail stores and more.
WalMart might need to rethink its stance on respect in the workplace, or it could be looking at a Black Friday nightmare. A disruption of business on one of the most important retail days of the year could pose a serious problem, even for a company as wealthy as WalMart, and the resulting public relations disaster could be difficult to recover from, even with expert consultants ready to handle it.
Photo credit: Neon Tommy.