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PORTSIDE  October 2012, Week 4

PORTSIDE October 2012, Week 4

Subject:

How Workers Are Using Globalization Against Walmart

From:

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Date:

Fri, 26 Oct 2012 23:11:31 -0400

Content-Type:

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Parts/Attachments

text/plain (222 lines)

How Workers Are Using Globalization Against Walmart

Waging Nonviolence
by Matthew Cunningham-Cook
October 24, 2012
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.

[Thanks to Matthew Cunningham-Cook for submitting this
to Portside -- moderator.]

___________________________________________

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