By Josh Eidelson of The Nation:
Walmart employees are on strike in Miami, Massachusetts and the California Bay Area this morning, kicking off what organizers promise will be the first “prolonged strikes” in the retail giant’s history. The union-backed labor group OUR Walmart says that at least a hundred workers have pledged to join the strikes, and that some workers walking off the job today will stay out at least through June 7, when Walmart holds its annual shareholder meeting near Bentonville, Arkansas.
Organizers expect retail employees in more cities to join the work stoppage, which follows the country’s first-ever coordinated Walmart store strikes last October, and a high-profile Black Friday walkout November 23. Like Black Friday’s, today’s strike is being framed by the union-backed labor group OUR Walmart as a response to retaliation against worker-activists.
After previous one-day strikes, San Leandro, California, Walmart employee Dominic Ware told The Nation last night, “We’ve seen that Walmart is trying to hold out the best that they can. So I’m planning on going on strike as long as it takes.”
“This represents the first time in Walmart history that workers have made the decision to go on prolonged strikes,” said United Food & Commercial Workers Union official Dan Schlademan, a key strategist in the OUR Walmart campaign. Schlademan called the workers’ willingness to escalate to prolonged strikes “another example of the depth of leadership and commitment that this organization is building.” OUR Walmart has close ties to the UFCW, which has also backed past pressure campaigns against Walmart, and failed efforts to unionize its stores.
As The Nation first reported, OUR Walmart activists are also planning a series of caravans, inspired by the 1961 civil rights movement freedom rides, which will converge in Bentonville this weekend prior to the shareholder gathering. That “Ride for Respect” will bring workers to about thirty cities, including Los Angeles, DC, Chicago and Cincinnati, where they’ll meet supporters and visit Walmart stores before continuing to Arkansas. Schlademan called the caravans “a massive education program meant to educate Walmart workers and communities about the issues of Walmart.”
Asked yesterday about OUR Walmart, its retaliation allegations and its planned caravan to the convention, Walmart spokesperson Brooke Buchanan e-mailed that the shareholder meeting would be “a celebration of our 2.2 million associates who work hard every day so people around the world can live better.” “The Union and its subsidiary ‘Our Walmart’ is comprised of a few number of people,” Buchanan wrote, “most of whom aren’t even Walmart associates and don’t represent the views of our associates. This latest publicity stunt by the union to generate attention for their fleeting cause won’t impact the festivities.” Walmart has previously denied retaliating against employees for organizing.
As The Nation has reported, the strike wave in Walmart’s supply chain began with a walkout by eight immigrant guest workers at a seafood supplier last July; they were followed by sub-contracted warehouse workers who struck for a few weeks beginning in September. Organizers say that at least 500 Walmart retail employees struck over the ten days leading up to and including Black Friday.
Walmart’s response to the fall protests included the filing of charges with the National Labor Relations Board alleging that the UFCW had violated the legal limits on “representational picketing” designed to pressure companies to grant union recognition. The UFCW reached a de facto settlement with the NLRB in January, under which the UFCW repeated its public insistence that its efforts were intended to win workplace improvements at Walmart, not collective bargaining, and agreed to abstain from picketing for sixty days. A week later, on February 7, half a dozen Maryland retail employees held another one-day strike to protest what they alleged was a new wave of intimidation from the company, including managers telling workers that the strikes had been illegal, that OUR Walmart was being dissolved and that involvement with the group could lead to disciplinary action. (Organizers noted that “picketing” has a specific legal meaning, distinct from striking.)
Since then, OUR Walmart has alleged additional acts of retaliation and intimidation by Walmart management. Last week, the group filed a new round of NLRB charges against Walmart, alleging thirty additional counts of “unfair labor practices” by the company, including the firings of OUR Walmart activists Carlton Smith and Vanessa Ferriera.
As I reported for Salon, Smith was among a group of early OUR Walmart worker leaders who alleged that management was targeting them last year, before the strikes; Smith was also one of four OUR Walmart activists who together introduced a resolution at last year’s Walmart shareholder meeting that would have restricted executive bonuses. Ware noted that Smith had worked for Walmart for seventeen years, and last year had been recognized as an employee of the month. For Walmart “to show no loyalty back,” said Ware, “it just infuriates me, man. And it pushes me more to do what I do.”
OUR Walmart’s latest raft of NLRB charges coincided with the release of a new report from the union-backed nonprofit American Rights at Work–Jobs With Justice, arguing that retaliation and intimidation by the retail giant have intensified as the workers’ campaign escalated. The report, by ARAW Research Director Erin Johansson, was based on a review of 150 alleged incidents. “Managers at both the store and corporate level implement pervasive forms of intimidation which Walmart has good reason to believe will not provoke action by the NLRB,” wrote Johansson. “Evidence suggests that Walmart managers disguise acts of retaliation against workers as legitimate discipline or routine enforcement of company policy.”
Over the six months since Black Friday, OUR Walmart leaders have claimed Walmart’s announced plans to improve its scheduling system, and the departures of Walmart executives and board members, as signs that its activism is making an impact. Activists have said that the November strikes engaged a new wave of worker-activists who’ve been organizing their co-workers around local and national grievances. According to the campaign, hundreds of workers in dozens of stores went in groups on April 24 to confront management about working hours they say are erratic and insufficient. But that turnout, like Black Friday’s, still constitutes less than one in every thousand Walmart employees in the United States.
“Every associate that works for Walmart has a complaint,” said Ware. “And they think there’s no way out. They think if they say something they’ll be fired, or hours cut, or just looked at differently by managers and their fellow associates. We’ve got to end the fear, and once the fear is gone, you’re going to see thousands of people—more than that…”
“We’re still growing and developing organization,” said Schlademan. “We’re still building for this year and expect, and plan, and know there’ll be much bigger actions than there were last year.” Schlademan said that the campaign has been “in a moment of doing a lot of internal building” and engaging workers and community allies who reached out to get involved after seeing the Black Friday strikes. “And so we’re seeing all signs that this is going to be bigger and bigger.” Looking ahead, he said, “Either we prove it’s growing or it’s not. And we’re certainly going to prove it’s growing this year.”
As for the specter of retaliation for today’s strikes, Schlademan said, “There is always a risk that a company like Walmart will break the law,” although the Walmart strikers “have extra protections because Walmart has demonstrated that they are not honoring our laws in our country.”
Under US law, strikers whom the government finds to be motivated in part by illegal “unfair labor practices” by management—as today’s strikers say they are—have greater legal protection against being “permanently replaced” (denied the chance to return to work after striking). Recent months have seen a number of high-profile non-union strikes that organizers have also said qualified for such “ULP strike” protection, including one-day walkouts by federally contracted workers in Washington, subcontracted janitors in Twin Cities Target stores and fast food workers in five cities.
But by striking without an announced end date, today’s Walmart strikers may still be taking a greater risk—especially given unions’ long-time complaint that labor law enforcement is too slow and too weak to deter companies set on crushing organizing efforts. Schlademan said that striking was “their strongest way to respond to Walmart retaliation.”
“I have no fear of being retaliated against,” said Ware. “Because the whole reason that I’m speaking out is bigger than me…. I’m more scared about my son one day having to work for Walmart.”