Strikes without unions: Walmart

Workers (“associates” to their employers) have walked off the job at several Walmarts sprawled across the United States.  The workers at Walmart, like most workers in retail, and most workers in the private sector, and most workers in the United States, aren’t unionized, so organizing a job action is pretty difficult.  Walmart workers haven’t pledged any loyalty to a union, so they can’t be called off the job site; there’s no collective contract or protections, and unemployment is high–particularly among the low wage workers Walmart tries to hire.

It’s hard to get attention for any movement during the final stretch of a national election campaign.  Journalists–and even your colleagues at the water cooler or coffee machine–are more likely to discuss Joe Biden’s smile or smirk these days than growing economic inequality or the plight of low wage workers.  With the beginnings of the walk-out, the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union (UFCW)has succeeded, at least for the moment, at breaking into the mass media.

Most reports suggest relatively few workers have yet taken the risk of walking off the job: as of yesterday, 88 workers (out of more than 2.2 million that Walmart claims to employ), spread across 28 stores in a dozen cities.  But they’ve been able to get attention for their grievances: very low wages, poor working conditions, and retaliatory action (reduced and unfavorable scheduling) against workers trying to complain–or even organize a union (this, by the way, is illegal).

And there may be more to come.  Making Change at Walmart, the unionization effort sponsored by the UFCW, has threatened a strike for Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving, and probably the most important sales day all year for mass market retailers.

How can a non-unionized workforce strike?  It would be easy for Walmart to fire and replace workers, particularly with the current employment climate.  Everyone knows this.  But you don’t need to have to get many, much less most, to walk off the job to make a difference.  UFCW can organize pickets and protests, leaflet campaigns and rallies which could compete with holiday circulars in offering information about the mega-retailer.

Would-be employees might walk down the street to Target.  More significantly, Christmas shoppers can drive their minivans to the next giant mall parking lot for Christmas shopping.  Walmart doesn’t have to lose many shoppers to lose millions of dollars in sales.  Everyone knows this as well.  At a time when Walmart has been working hard to appeal to more upscale consumer by featuring organic food and green energy products, here’s a set of hassles that those consumers are likely to notice.

So, labor organizers don’t have to get huge mobilization to make some trouble.  Is that enough?

What can UFCW organizers get?  At once, it’s a little glimmer of creative labor activism in a time when unions have taken defeat after defeat.  They may be able to win some protections for Walmart workers trying to organize, acknowledging that Walmart has many other tactics for preventing its labor force from unionizing.  They may be able to send a message to Walmart’s retail competitors, most of whom don’t pay any better.

They may be able to forge alliances with the community activists across the country who have opposed Walmarts because of their adverse effects on local businesses, downtowns, and traffic.  (Low prices haven’t prevented lots of people from finding fault with Walmart!)

They may even be able to break into election rhetoric at some level, reviving the discussion of economic inequality that Occupy put on the public agenda.  With the onset of collective action, nothing is certain.  It’s certain, however, that quiescence hasn’t worked very well for low wage workers.

About David S. Meyer

Author and professor of Sociology and Political Science at the University of California, Irvine
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