Why the WalMart strike matters

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In many respects, WalMart “associates” are an unlikely group to be hitting the picket lines. They don’t belong to a union, although many are members of the organization United for Respect at WalMart (OUR WalMart), an organization formed in Fall 2010, which has backing from the United Food and Commercial Workers. They work for a powerful employer that has elevated aggressive and sophisticated anti-unionism to new levels. And strikes of any sort are increasingly rare in the U.S., even among unionized workers with much greater leverage and job security.

The nationwide Black Friday day of action follows protests last month at WalMart stores in several cities, including Los Angeles, San Francisco,
Sacramento, Seattle, Dallas, Miami, and suburban D.C., and a 24-hour strike at a L.A. store in September. The workers are calling on the world’s largest corporation to pay its employees at least $13 per hour, increase the number of full time jobs, expand healthcare coverage, and allow employees to form unions without fear of retribution. At present, many WalMart employees work for less than $10 per hour, with tens of thousands relying on public assistance to support their families, and the company scheduling system provides many employees with only part-time hours when they want full-time work. With $13.5 billion in capital expenditures forecast for the current fiscal year, moreover, WalMart has just announced that employees will pay between 8-36% more in healthcare premiums in 2013.

And then there is WalMart’s fiercely anti-union philosophy and practices. The company has long been the poster-child for the feebleness of U.S. labor law. Although WalMart deals with unions in other countries when it has no other choice, it has never waivered in its vigorous opposition to unions in the U.S. WalMart associates have been fired, intimidated or “educated” on the disadvantages of unionization; stores have been closed after experiencing union activity; crack teams of anti-union specialists have been deployed from corporate HQ; the law has been bent, broken, and even reshaped in the company’s image; and WalMart has always remained union free, despite numerous efforts by its employees to form unions. WalMart excels at systematically exploiting of the weakness of U.S. labor law.

In response, the company has claimed that the workplace protests – unprecedented in the 50-year history of WalMart – are simply the actions of a small number of frustrated employees, pushed on by a union with its own political and financial agenda. Senior executives have cited WalMart’s “open door” communications policy and stated that many employees “work their way up” to management positions.

This response has been heard many times before, but Bentonville’s arguments now ring increasingly hollow. By any objective standard, retail positions at WalMart and work in its contracted warehouses are substandard jobs: low pay, poor benefits, limited hours and bad supervisory practices. WalMart has adopted legal and illegal tactics to thwart unionization and has created atmosphere of fear and intimidation in the workplace when it comes to going against the company’s wishes, which makes the events of recent weeks all the more remarkable.

But the WalMart strikes could have a greater significance than their impact on one mega-corporation. Depending on the scale of Friday’s action and on what happens afterwards, the strike could provide unions and their progressive allies with the opportunity to kick-start a national debate about the sorry state of labor rights. Opportunities like this don’t come along often for organized labor, though it has squandered a few recently, including the debate over anti-collective bargaining laws in Wisconsin and Ohio, which passed without gaining much traction.

Finally, WalMart is not only the country’s largest private-sector corporation with 1.4 million employees. It is also the nation’s largest of employer of women, African-Americans and Latinos – all essential voting blocs in the president’s re-election.

So what will President Obama do for them?

After the enactment of the National Labor Relations Act in 1935, Franklin Delano Roosevelt allegedly said, “If I were a factory worker, I would join a union.” It is unlikely that FDR ever said that, but it was believable that he did, so the fledgling industrial unions of the CIO used the slogan “the president wants you to join a union” to help organize workers in the factories and coal fields. Imagine the boost that that the effort to organize Wal-Mart would get if the company’s employees believed that President Obama might say, “If I were a WalMart worker, I would join a union.” And imagine the boost the organizing effort would get if he actually said it.

Logan is professor and director of Labor and Employment Studies at San Francisco State University.