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October 2012, Week 4

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How Workers are Using Globalization Against Walmart

Waging Nonviolence

by Matthew Cunningham-Cook

October 24, 2012 Waging Nonviolence

http://wagingnonviolence.org/2012/10/how-workers-are-using-globalization-against-walmart/

The recent Walmart strikes - beginning first among warehouse
workers in California, then spreading to others in Elwood,
Illinois, and finally to Walmart retail stores across the
United States - raise the possibility that workers may be able
to crack the anti-union wall at the country's largest
employer. The new momentum seems likely to spread among many
more workplaces to come. But these wildcat strikes are a
reminder that, if American workers are to have a better-
organized future, they will have to better understand where
their corporate opponents are vulnerable.

The Walmart strikes are part of a significant reevaluation of
organizing strategy by labor unions and activists in the
context of the continuing decline of unionism in the United
States - where fewer than 7 percent of workers in the private
sector belong to a union. As Nadine Bloch pointed out two
weeks ago, such wildcat strikes on multiple levels of the
supply chain at Walmart are unprecedented, and groups like OUR
Walmart and Warehouse Workers for Justice are planning to
escalate the campaign in the coming weeks.

Over the past three decades, there has been a tremendous shift
in the work lives of almost everyone in the United States
wrought by processes of globalization. With the deregulation
of trade in favor of multinational corporations (exemplified
in trade deals such as NAFTA), and the emergence of hyper-
specialization, most major commodities are now produced with
components manufactured all over the world, selected through a
competitive bidding process that aims to extract the maximum
profit.

Few have expressed this brave new world better than former
General Electric CEO Jack Welch, when he said to Lou Dobbs in
1998, "Ideally, you'd have every plant you own on a barge."
The 1 percent, that is, could move the points of production at
a whim to wherever the cost of labor was cheapest and the
regulatory environment was weakest.

Walmart led the retail industry's embrace of this system,
though most other retailers now follow the post-globalization
model as well. In the past, most retail operations would take
place at regional or national population centers, with
considerably higher transit costs that made local and higher-
priced labor a necessity. But with the increasing automation
of ports - as well as the deregulation of containerization in
1984 and of the trucking industry at the end of the 1970s -
the global and national supply chain transit costs have been
reduced. The increasing mobility of production and
distribution has spelled disaster for the once-powerful trade
unions. Rather than relying on a stable pool of labor, the key
to Walmart's success has been getting low-cost goods to
customers at precisely the right moment according to
microanalysis of market patterns. But that is also what makes
it so vulnerable to work stoppages.

Workers at key points in the supply chain can create massive
disruptions in the process. A report conducted in 2002 found
that a West Coast longshoremen lockout cost the U.S. economy
$2 billion daily. And, in the recent strike of just two dozen
subcontracted Walmart warehouse workers in Elwood, Illinois,
the strikers heard reports from allies at Walmart retail
stores in the region that there were already shortages of
goods. This occurred less than 10 days into the strike, Elwood
warehouse worker Mike Compton told me.

By focusing on key links in the supply chain, and by using a
strike at the beginning of an organizing campaign instead of
at the end, Walmart workers are not only taking advantage of
the company's 21st-century weaknesses. they're also harkening
back to an earlier form of union organization, which was far
more common prior to the passage of the Wagner Act of 1935.

The Wagner Act established a form of union organizing through
secret-ballot elections and contract negotiations that has
been the method by which most unions since then have
organized. After its passage, wildcat strikes dramatically
decreased. But with the decimation of the National Labor
Relations Board under the Reagan administration and an ever-
decreasing share of union workers in the private sector,
groups like the Change to Win Federation - made up of four
major labor unions - and the small, militant United Electrical
Workers union are now backing worker centers with new
strategies. Their primary focus is, first, improving working
conditions on the ground; formal union recognition can then
occur after such basics as permanent employment and freedom
from retaliation are established.

Wildcatting certainly brings more aggressive tactics to the
fore once again, but with the ever-increasing automation of
most skilled tasks in the workplace and with more and more
unemployed workers available to take the place of strikers, a
traditional wildcat strike has little likelihood of success in
many cases. Factories can be moved if the supply system is
still intact, and low-skill retail workers are usually easy
for management to replace, at least temporarily.

But at certain vital points in the global movement of
commodities, organizers are seeing new opportunities. The
magazine Labor Notes, for instance, has been analyzing the
trends taking place on the supply chain and the global
organization of labor for the past two decades.

"Here we have a company, Walmart, that's not producing
anything, but is selling things," says Jane Slaughter, its co-
founder and co-editor. "Walmart is the master of lean supply,
they are known for squeezing every cent out of their
suppliers. Walmart depends on daily deliveries, and if workers
can throw a monkey wrench in that, it will cause them
significant problems."

A report by Warehouse Workers for Justice explains why it
makes sense for organizers to focus on a place like Elwood in
particular, given its location on the outskirts of Chicago:

The Chicago area is the only place in North America where six
Class I railroads meet. Warehouses, distribution centers,
container storage locations and intermodal facilities dot the
landscape. The strategic node of transportation that exists in
the greater Chicago area, dubbed the "Midwest Empire," is a
crucial link in the intermodal movement of goods in the United
States.

The Elwood facility, owned by the company RoadLink, processes
a staggering 70 percent of Walmart's domestic goods, and the
strike there has radically altered the balance of power in the
workplace. Mike Compton, a former striker who is now back at
work in the warehouse told me about the new climate of the
warehouse. "Managers are being overly nice," he said.

We ask for safety equipment, they get us safety equipment -
shin guards, masks, gloves. They do seem a little scared to
have us as a group. we've forced meetings on them. we've been
using the Weingarten Rights [by which a union member has a
right to have a union official or steward with them at any
meeting or hearing that could potentially lead to discipline],
whether or not it's disciplinary.

That the two-dozen workers were able to get back to work after
their time on strike - with full back-pay - is a far cry from
most labor organizing campaigns, in which there is a one-in-
three chance that an employer will retaliate by firing, and in
which there are usually rampant threats and interrogations
leading up to an election. But in Elwood managers seem to be
terrified.

The importance of this link on the Walmart supply chain was
indicated quite clearly by the response of the state of
Illinois to a protest by Warehouse Workers for Justice and its
community allies: police in riot gear, along with threats of
deploying long-range acoustic devices and projectiles. The
fact that a small minority of workers at a warehouse were able
to cause such fear from management leads one to think that
such links in the supply chain are just as tenuous as labor
researchers have thought them to be.

The first strike of this autumn of discontent was among
warehouse workers in Mira Loma, and workers went back to work
with safety improvements. But the significant victory in
Elwood - caused in part by its key location on the supply
chain - now gives Walmart workers across the country a real
and concrete victory to point to and to work from as they
escalate toward a national day of protest on Black Friday.

In the latter half of the 20th century, it was almost
axiomatic among theorists of industry that a low-wage, unsafe
and high-turnover model of production would come at the
expense of industrial peace. But for decades Walmart has
escaped that danger through rampant outsourcing and a global
supply chain that divides workers across the country and the
world. As exploited workers are stepping up their tactics, the
company's lavishly-paid executives and consultants are
probably beginning to rethink their ways of operating as well.

[Matthew Cunningham-Cook is a writer and activist in the labor
movement. He has worked with AFSCME and the UAW, and has
written for Labor Notes, the Public Employee Press and The
Nation.]

[Many thanks to the author for submitting this to Portside.]

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