Creative organizing at Walmart

By Joe Atkins, Labor South

A new strategy to push workers' rights at the world's largest retailer, Bentonville, Ark.-based Walmart, is utilizing what has been called "pre-New Deal unionism" and showing some real gains.

OUR Walmart and Warehouse Workers United (WWU), two initiatives backed by the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW), have organized public protests, informal meetings of workers, door-to-door membership recruiting campaigns, class-action suits against Walmart subcontractors, and strengthened contacts with workers along the retailer’s international supply chain.

According to writer Spencer Woodman in a compelling article in The Nation magazine's January 23 edition, "thousands of employees in hundreds of Walmarts in more than thirty states" have joined OUR Walmart, a non-union, union-backed activist group seeking better wages and working conditions. WWU has also made inroads into the 100,000-plus warehouse workers at Walmart and its suppliers in getting them to stand up for their rights, whether as full time or "temp" workers.

Many of the groups' biggest successes have been in California. However, a show of unity took place in Walmart's own Bentonville headquarters last October. Walmart workers overcame their fears of retaliation to demand respect and better pay. They weren't able to meet with Walmart CEO Mike Duke, like they wanted, but they made their voices heard.

"These worker associations bargain outside pre-established frameworks of negotiation, using any means legal to pressure management into recognizing their interests," Woodman writes. It's "an arrangement that closely resembles pre-New Deal unionism. With little institutional arbitration, this model can be seen as a rawer, more organic form of workplace struggle."

The long, frustrating battle to organize union-hostile Walmart is well-known. However, the UFCW and the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) have been pursuing different avenues for several years, particularly in establishing web sites to tell the truth about Walmart to the world. The UFCW's Wake Up Walmart, which is now called Making Change at Walmart, and SEIU's Walmart Watch helped force the company to try to clean up its image, taking on environmentally sensitive "green" projects and even endorsing President Obama's healthcare plan.

Yet, as Woodman writes, Walmart's new, spruced-up self emphatically did NOT include any changes in attitudes toward unions.

So the fight goes on. If true change does eventually come to the Bentonville company, the whole world will feel its effects.