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PORTSIDE  January 2012, Week 2

PORTSIDE January 2012, Week 2

Subject:

Labor Takes Aim at Walmart -- Again

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Sun, 8 Jan 2012 21:59:29 -0500

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Labor Takes Aim at Walmart -- Again
Spencer Woodman
The Nation
January 4, 2012
Source URL: http://www.thenation.com/article/165437/labor-takes-aim-walmart-again

In October two shabby buses filled with Walmart
employees stopped unannounced outside the company's
headquarters in Bentonville, Arkansas. As the employees
filed into the building's expansive parking lot,
plainclothes private security personnel sporting sleek
sunglasses and Walmart emergency response badges rushed
in and swiftly corralled the employees onto a public
sidewalk. Members of a new union-backed campaign to
organize Walmart, the workers had come from around the
country to ask Walmart's CEO, Mike Duke, for better
wages and better treatment.

The hoped-for meeting was not granted. Within minutes, a
dozen Bentonville police officers rushed in to reinforce
the security guards in forming a barricade between the
employees and their headquarters' front door. A labor
relations representative emerged from the mostly
windowless building. She announced that she would meet
only with workers who carried Walmart employee discount
cards in addition to their company badges and state IDs.
Without discount cards, the protesting employees would
be arrested.

"I didn't come here today to go shopping, so why do I
need my discount card?" said Girshriela Green, a young
mother who until recently worked at Walmart in Southern
California. "I feel totally disrespected. Shame on them
for not having the common decency to sit down and talk
to their own associates."

This recent unrest in Arkansas-the second Bentonville
action by the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW)-
supported OUR Walmart group in a span of four months-is
part of the widest effort yet to organize Walmart, the
world's largest private sector employer and the labor
movement's most intractable foe in the era of declining
unionism. Over the past year, a loose coalition of labor
groups has redoubled engagement with the retail giant in
a series of campaigns using nontraditional organizing
strategies-namely, the formation of informal groups of
workers that are not union certified but attempt to
assert themselves to management all the same. OUR
Walmart, the largest initiative, focuses on the
company's retail stores. Another new campaign, Warehouse
Workers United (WWU), focuses on logistics workers in
Walmart-contracted warehouses in Southern California and
is launching a lean effort to coordinate workers
internationally along Walmart's supply chain.

"A year ago, I would not have predicted this strategy of
nonunion worker organization," says Dorian Warren, a
professor of public affairs at Columbia University. "I
see it in the context of failed past strategies. It's
clear that you cannot run a formal NLRB election at
Walmart. This PR strategy of beating Walmart over the
head with bad publicity is reaching its limits. And
frankly, when the Supreme Court struck down the Dukes
case it became clear that the legal strategy was also
reaching a dead end."

Indeed, until recently it appeared that the labor
movement was lying prostrate in its engagement with the
Arkansas colossus-a company whose anti-unionism, both
visionary and vicious, has triumphed at every turn. In
2000 the UFCW won an election at a small meatpacking
unit at a Texas Walmart, only to learn that the company
would dissolve all in-store meatpacking companywide.
Five years later, an entire Quebec Walmart was shuttered
just weeks after its employees voted to unionize. The
fines the $400 billion company incurs from such boldly
illegal retaliations are minimal compared with the
potential cost of raising wages.

Such defeats notwithstanding, union leaders have decided
that organizing retail in America is not feasible
without first dealing with Walmart, a company that, more
than any other on earth, sets labor standards across
industries that feed its vast global supply chain. The
core of Walmart's low-price wizardry lies in its
innovative mechanisms for minimizing labor costs, most
often the number-one expense of production in low-end
retail.

In recent years, as it has suffered dismal sales reports
and turmoil in management, Walmart has doubled down on
its strategy of suppressing wages and benefits for its
2.1 million employees. This is evidenced all the way
from Bangladeshi garment factories, which maintain
working conditions that verge on slavery to meet
Walmart's rock-bottom procurement prices, to sales
floors across the Americas, where managers are given
increasingly narrow budgets to pay staff, who make an
average of around $8 an hour and often have to rely on
government-funded food and healthcare programs.

"All along this company's global supply chain we are
seeing millions of workers in disparate work roles but
who are facing the same issues: increasing
precariousness, exploitation and the inability to
democratically organize," says an international
organizer at WWU.

In this intense workforce squeeze, labor groups see an
opportunity.

* * *

In just over a year, OUR Walmart has signed up thousands
of employees in hundreds of Walmarts in more than thirty
states. Though not yet being seriously discussed,
unionization remains an open, if distant, option. In
launching the campaign, the UFCW sent hundreds of its
members door-to-door to encourage Walmart employees to
join the group, which requires a $5 monthly dues
payment.

Organizers credit the group's brisk expansion to the
ditching of formal union drives, in which organizers
must win a prescheduled election at a store. "Walmart is
very effective in dealing with a classic union strategy,
where there's an election coming that it can plan
around," says Wade Rathke, the founder of ACORN. He
helped organize Walmarts from Florida to California in
an experiment with nonunion organizing beginning in
2004. "But when there's no election coming, they don't
know how to deal with these noncertified workers'
associations."

This nonelection route bypasses official forms of
collective bargaining, which mandate that workers and
management sit down to agree on compensation and hours.
Instead, these worker associations bargain outside pre-
established frameworks of negotiation, using any means
legal to pressure management into recognizing their
interests-an arrangement that closely resembles pre-New
Deal unionism. With little institutional arbitration,
this model can be seen as a rawer, more organic form of
workplace struggle.

National labor law broadly protects nonunion worker
activities, including collective actions and even
nonunion strikes. "In a nonunion situation, the
employers do not have to agree to what these groups
demand, but if the employer retaliates, there is a right
to file an unfair practice charge and the NLRB would
enforce it," says Lance Compa, a professor of labor
relations at Cornell University.

OUR Walmart member Jackie Goebel took advantage of such
unofficial channels of bargaining this past summer at
her store in Kenosha, Wisconsin.

When she began as a cashier in 1988, Goebel saw Walmart
as the small town's most attractive workplace, one that
she associated with the market-inspired humanitarianism
of its founder, Sam Walton. More recently, Goebel's
satisfaction with her job has soured. In 2005 her
daughter, a young mother who was a cashier at the same
store, went to the doctor with troubling symptoms. The
doctor diagnosed ovarian cysts and insisted she get a
hysterectomy. In the fall of 2006, she approached Goebel
and said she had ovarian cancer. "I asked her, `Why did
you not have the hysterectomy when they first suggested
it to you?'" Goebel recalls. "And she looked directly at
me and said, `I was afraid if I took the time off they'd
fire me.'" Goebel's daughter died in 2007 at 37.

"I don't hold Walmart culpable for my daughter having
cancer," says Goebel. "But she was living in this
horrible fear of losing her job, and had she gone and
gotten the surgery when the doctor suggested, it would
have bought her years more with her kids."

While coping with the consequences of Walmart's well-
documented practice of firing employees with medical
issues, Goebel also began to notice that her manager was
slashing wages while increasingly demanding that the
workers perform task volumes she calls "not humanly
possible." Since its launch, the Kenosha OUR Walmart
group has not grown impressively. It has eight members.
Nonetheless, this past summer the small group confronted
management to demand fair treatment and access to their
employee files. Goebel had been the subject of
unexplained disciplinary action, which she hoped her
record would clarify. After she filed a complaint with
her state labor department, the store's management
showed Goebel her file. "We still have a lot of work to
do, but these little gains have helped considerably,"
she says.

Numbers-wise, OUR Walmart has had more success in
Southern California, where one member reports that more
than half of her store's 500 workers have joined the
group. "Six months ago, under our old store manager, we
were not treated with respect," says Venanzi Luna, a
department manager (department managers at Walmart still
earn hourly wages and thus legally belong to
nonmanagerial ranks). "So many people were unwillingly
part time, our hours kept getting cut, and individual
associates were expected to do the work of three. It was
miserable."

Over the summer, Luna took her human resources
coordinator by surprise when she and twenty other OUR
Walmart member employees walked into his office and
demanded that the store's top manager be fired. In short
order, Bentonville flew in one of its labor relations
specialists to discuss with employees how the workplace
could be improved. Within a month, the unpopular store
manager was quietly replaced with one more favorable to
employees, and scheduling improved markedly. The store
bumped several workers from part time to full time. The
group, however, has had no success in seeking wage
increases.

* * *

Thirty miles east of Luna's store lies the largest
concentration of warehouses on earth and the site of
another innovative Walmart-focused organizing effort.
This is the Inland Empire, the logistical heart of
America's leading big box retail companies, Walmart
foremost among them. Nearly half of America's
containerized imports-mostly from factories in China and
Southeast Asia-are pumped through the ports of Long
Beach and Los Angeles, into the Inland Empire's
sprawling distribution centers clustered throughout the
exurban galaxy of San Bernardino County, and then are
trucked out to the retail shelves of every town in
America.

The more than 100,000 warehouse workers who move these
goods offer an extreme case of America's decades-long
trend toward a flexible workforce. Supplied with a vast
army of "permanent temps"-who are sourced on daily
notice through the region's more than 400 temp agencies
but work continuously at the same job sites for years-
warehouse operators in the Inland Empire have enjoyed
near impunity in matters of wage theft, illegal firings
and denying Workers Compensation claims. According to
the Bureau of Labor Statistics, warehousing is one of
the country's most dangerous work environments. "There
are dangers in the warehouse because we are pressured to
work so quickly. We all work with open scrapes
bleeding," one temp worker, currently at a Schneider
Logistics warehouse, one of the country's largest
shipping firms, told me through an interpreter. "I have
an injured co-worker who works all day limping. These
are just everyday injuries."

The Inland Empire's workforce transience makes
traditional approaches to organizing impossible.

In 2008 Change to Win Federation launched an ambitious
and unorthodox drive to organize these warehouse
workers. "I wouldn't even call this a model," said Nick
Allen, lead organizer of the campaign. "We are trying to
do what we know works, and it's rooted in mobilizing
workers in the communities where they live and work."
WWU knocked on doors in the region's poorest
neighborhoods and established a worker center to provide
basic educational and legal services.

As this effort grew to include thousands of warehouse
workers, organizers realized how fundamentally Walmart's
influence shapes the region. "These warehouses are as
bad as it gets in terms of working conditions in
America," said Allen. "Walmart largely pioneered this
system and still sets the standards. We feel it's
important for the biggest player to be held accountable
for the conditions in this industry. Our goal is to
raise standards throughout the industry and bring
workers from shitty, minimum-wage temp jobs to decent
jobs." In 2010 WWU shifted its resources to focus
primarily on Walmart-contracted warehouses.

WWU workers have engaged in collective activities
similar to those of OUR Walmart. In October the group
filed a class-action wage theft suit against Schneider
Logistics, a major warehouse subcontractor for Walmart.
Weeks later, a federal judge placed a temporary
restraining order on the company, demanding that
Schneider improve its payment system while the
litigation proceeds.

Across the Pacific Ocean from Los Angeles, WWU is
quietly pursuing an international project in which
organizers are looking at all points of Walmart's supply
chain on multiple continents. A key goal of the effort
is to raise awareness about Walmart among workers-many
of whom work in factories not technically owned by
Walmart but that the company in effect controls. "We are
building on the fact that these workers are either
manufacturing, transporting or selling goods for the
same giant retailer," says Allen. "Most workers
understand this pretty well, but what they haven't had
the opportunity to do is to connect with other workers
along the supply chain." Organizers will not disclose
what actions the network will take if it grows large
enough to gain some leverage against the company.

* * *

in 2005 the UFCW and the Service Employees International
Union spearheaded a large-scale PR campaign that linked
a coalition of progressive groups to generate outrage
over Walmart's retrograde business practices. The UFCW
poured millions of dollars into the web-based Wake Up
Walmart (now Making Change at Walmart), while the SEIU
funded Walmart Watch. The wave of negative press put the
company on the defensive and scored the coalition some
concrete wins. Walmart invested billions in repackaging
itself as green and socially responsible-going so far as
to enlist the full-time help of prominent Democratic
strategist Leslie Dach. To the dismay of the US Chamber
of Commerce, Walmart supported Obama's healthcare bill
and more than doubled its tiny fraction of campaign
contributions going to Democratic candidates. Especially
in environmentalism and health food, Walmart made a
genuine, if tactical, stab at improvement, which
succeeded in mollifying many activists.

Organized labor, however, reached no such d├ętente with
the big-box goliath. "We listen to all of our critics,
because a lot of times they have legitimate concerns,"
said Mona Williams, a Walmart spokeswoman. "But unions
are not in that category."

Thus, labor saw its coalition divided, and is now
largely on its own in engaging the company. But the UFCW
dug in, substantially increasing its Walmart-devoted
budget to fuel the current push.

Even so, some question whether the UFCW is serious about
committing to a long-term organizing campaign, or
whether OUR Walmart boils down to a new and
sophisticated tool of the union's ongoing publicity
campaign against Walmart. "The big question here is,
What does this campaign define as success?" says Nelson
Lichtenstein, who teaches at the University of
California, Santa Barbara, and is one of the foremost
experts on Walmart. "I think success to them would be to
enroll a few thousand workers to speak out, make a bunch
of noise and generate bad publicity. This seems to me an
extension of what they've been doing for quite some
time. Although when workers begin to feel unafraid to
publicly speak out-that is a crucial moment of any
organizing campaign, and its significance can hardly be
overstated."

In October in Bentonville, the Making Change at Walmart
group, which helps support OUR Walmart, hosted a panel
discussion of Walmart workers and managers to provide
critical perspectives to stock analysts in town from New
York and Europe for meetings with Walmart executives the
following day. The first of its kind, the meeting seemed
to achieve its aims, but a telling moment came when the
panel was pressed on OUR Walmart's long-term prospects.
"Unless you're getting to a point where you're striking
at the store level," asked Dan Binder, an analyst at
Jefferies, "how do you plan to implement real change?"
Binder repeated the question, getting only vague
invocations of worker solidarity. Eventually, Dan
Schlademan, director of Making Change at Walmart, piped
in: "At the end of the day, it's not about what this
group is going to do-it's really about how Walmart
decides to respond to this group."

This language, striking in its passivity from a union
official, points to a central departure of this
organizing approach.

OUR Walmart must balance dual roles: it needs the
aggressive offense of trade unionism to effectively
pressure the company; yet in order to appeal to many
conservative-leaning, union-skeptical Walmart workers,
and to evade the company's advanced union avoidance
tactics, it also must embody features of an amorphous,
business advocacy group out to help Walmart make the
right decisions for itself. Perhaps the most impressive
feat yet of OUR Walmart is its ability to play both
roles.

"This sort of experimentation is what labor needs most
right now," says Ruth Milkman, associate director of the
Murphy Institute at CUNY. "I couldn't think of a better
way to go about doing this, but the proof will be in the
pudding."

Many in the labor movement are closely watching the
renewed fight for workers' rights at Walmart. Big box
retail is a potential springboard for unions seeking to
bolster dwindling ranks. Globalization devastated
America's manufacturing workforce. Retail jobs, in
contrast, largely cannot be outsourced. Any success with
these experiments could enable a broader wave of
organizing in what is becoming America's largest sector
of employment. On one thing, labor experts and officials
agree: to succeed, the Walmart efforts will require
tremendous outlay.

"If they really want to get this to scale-where you have
100,000-plus members and finally see a big impact on the
company-it will take an incredible commitment of time
and money," says Wade Rathke. "Organizing is hard." But,
he adds, "Walmart workers are ready-that's the easy
part."

___________________________________________

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