[Marxism] Taking on Wal-Mart

Horacio Oliveira horaciooliveira at mac.com
Sun Mar 20 10:25:18 MST 2005

Taking a class interest rather than a collective bargaining approach,  
about time.

We need to do more than take the gloves off, we need to pick up a bat  
and smash what Wal-Mart stands for.

By Ward Rathke
Republished from Alternet News
After a few piece-meal failed attempts, a full force effort and new  
creative strategy are needed to organize the nation's largest retailer.
As the debate concerning labor’s future rages on, prodded by Andy  
Stern, international president of the Service Employees International  
Union (SEIU), and answered by one union after another, Sweeney has  
agreed on the need for debate and the need to form committees to  
discuss the various proposals generated. Workers in general and union  
members in specific can hardly find cause for inspiration or action  
in these multi-point programs. This is true, except in one very  
important area: the proposal for a full-scale campaign against Wal-Mart.

In the case of Wal-Mart, Stern has argued that one clear “purpose”  
for the AFL-CIO is in leading campaigns which transcend the interests  
of any single union and find common cause for all unions and indeed  
all working people. He has publicly argued in the debates around  
restructuring the federation that as much as $25 million should be  
set aside for the Wal-Mart campaign, virtually earmarking all of the  
HSBC/Household credit card money that goes to the federation. Sweeney  
has shrewdly stated publicly that perhaps even $25 million is not  
enough to fight Wal-Mart – indicating that it might take even more!  
Disappointingly, very few other unions have taken up the battle cry  
over Wal-Mart, perhaps because they believe that this is all just an  
argument between one or two people and a half dozen unions, rather  
than a fight for the future for American workers.

I would argue that a campaign on all fronts against Wal-Mart is the  
single organizing effort that offers the most hope for working  
families. Furthermore, driving an organizing program around Wal-Mart  
and its workers could potentially change the tide for labor and  
create organizational capacities that would give us fighting and  
winning forces for our future.

Wal-Mart and its wannabes are the GMs, Fords, Chryslers and U.S.  
Steels of our time. The great organizing drives of the 1930s were  
mounted around an understanding that there was a new industrial force  
reorganizing all of mass work. Wal-Mart and its clones have similarly  
restructured the nature of mass enterprise in service industries  
today, and therefore are transforming the fundamental business model  
that drives both domestic and international commerce.

The size, scale, strength, and location of the company are a direct  
challenge to almost any usual or common organizing strategy. One  
cannot go store by store with NLRB-style direct certification  
elections. There are just too, too many stores to believe that one  
could conceivably get a handle on the company in this way.  
Furthermore, the United Food & Commercial Workers (UFCW) has already  
tried this model aggressively and thrown the kitchen sink at the  
company without much success. One cannot also underestimate the  
weakness of the current law and the robber baron ruthlessness of the  
company and its culture. The often repeated true story of the UFCW  
winning an election in a butchery department in the Dallas area and  
Wal-Mart switching every store in the American empire to processed  
meat speaks volumes of the futility of this approach

A market-oriented strategy effective in direct recognition successes  
in other industries is also unlikely to be effective in organizing  
Wal-Mart. Arguably the southern California market had UFCW’s best  
contracts and highest unionization rates, yet the threat of Wal- 
Mart’s entry was sufficient to destabilize the bargaining  
relationships preemptively, rather than forcing Wal-Mart to move up  
to the market rates and benefits in order to enter the area. The  
power and efficiency of the Wal-Mart business model acts as a  
pervasive threat regardless of unionization. Recently, as Wal-Mart  
replaced Albertson’s as the number one grocery seller in the Dallas- 
Fort Worth market, Albertson’s countered by publicly announcing that  
it was unilaterally moving the bulk of its 20,000 workers in that  
area to part-time status with no benefits.

To state the obvious – there is no easy way to organize Wal-Mart  
workers. Furthermore, there is a pervasive culture that militates  
against organization, along with a generation of union avoidance work  
that permeates all parts of the personnel system. It is not  
cowardice, but good judgment that brings us to the basic conclusion  
that to organize these workers one must build a different kind of  
formation than we have seen previously. The mission cannot be to  
create simple “bread and butter” unionization for Wal-Mart workers;  
instead, as both Stern and Sweeney have argued, the grand vision has  
to be achieving change and a voice for all workers.

Get the idea of collective bargaining out of your mind. Collective  
bargaining requires two parties committed to at least a minimal level  
of good faith in practice and a concession of a countervailing level  
of power between management and labor. Currently, such programs are  
unimaginable at Wal-Mart and therefore at best a distraction. The  
mismatched imbalance of power is too extreme to imagine winning an  
agreement now. We need to put pressure on wages and benefits, and  
envision an organization that exerts constant pressure in a way that  
is unnatural under a bargaining regime. The first priority for  
workers at Wal-Mart has to be building a powerful organization on the  
job and in public vis a vis their employer.

Efforts to engage the community in conjunction with other allies on  
the requirements for new Wal-Mart store sites, including community  
benefits, have become increasingly successful. There are now examples  
like living wages (won in Chicago), store access (won recently in  
Hartford), environmental protections and disclosures (conceded in  
Tarpon Springs, Fla.). The missing agreement has been a formation  
that includes Wal-Mart workers asserting their own interests and  
objectives in the community. Similar fights with a worker face and  
voice would empower a worker association.

For workers to create an association at the workplace they will need  
a strong alliance of support in the community acting in concert with  
them and protecting their efforts to create space for organization  
and struggle. Such an alliance should be constructed on the broadest  
possible framework in order to unite all other organizations and  
interests who have an issue that engages the company and its  
practice. Community organizations like ACORN, and other civic  
organizations have raised concern about store traffic, location,  
safety, sprawl, and its impact on the community. Immigrant and civil  
rights groups have raised issues around discriminatory employment  
practices. Women’s and labor groups have raised issues about sex  
discrimination in pay and promotions. Environmental groups have  
concerns that range from sprawl to green practices. Consumer groups  
have raised issues concerning toxic cosmetics, shoddy foreign goods,  
questionable financial services, and an array of similar issues. From  
such a burgeoning array of groups a very broad alliance could be  
constructed linking the interests inside the company with the public  
force of its activity.

Besides bringing together community organizations and institutions  
into such an alliance, there should also be an effort to recruit  
individual support for workers and their families who are organizing  
the association. This can be done in numerous ways (via canvass,  
internet, door to door, etcetera), but it is essential that there be  
a direct, independent, and large base of public support for the  
alliance and the association to offset the tactics that will be  
predictably taken by the company.

Critical to both of these efforts would be a stakeholder not usually  
seen in classic labor organizing: former employees. Wal-Mart, and  
companies that are following its business model, churn through the  
workforce. Wal-Mart claims that its turnover is now down to about 40  
percent, but with 1.2 million workers that is still a huge number of  
workers – more than 500,000 – to spit out on an annual basis. These  
workers have experience with the company, have gained some  
perspective from their distance from the culture and the paycheck,  
and in many cases have issues about rights abridged and are even  
potential beneficiaries of efforts to reform the company’s practices.  
They have a common cause and their voice is an important one to add  
in reforming the company, therefore a place should be made for them  
in this new type of organizational formation. The inability of most  
unions to allow useful and vital participation from workers who are  
unemployed, laid off, or fired is a critical weakness of the  
political structure of such institutions. We should not allow such  
barriers to exist in this new formation, because we need the help of  
such former workers for their own sake and in order to support both  
community and existing worker activity.

Stern’s call for a campaign against Wal-Mart, and Sweeney’s rejoinder  
to bring it on, but perhaps in an even larger way, is potentially the  
best news American workers have heard in several decades. At the  
least, a serious and well-resourced campaign focusing on Wal- Mart,  
even if it does nothing more than force the company to establish a  
fairer business model, will make a difference to Wal-Mart workers and  
their allies. It would also send the message to unorganized workers  
throughout the United States that labor cares – and will act – on  
behalf of the unorganized and oppressed. At the most, the Wal-Mart  
battle cry could create new momentum for mass organization among the  
literally tens of millions of unorganized service workers in firms  
both gargantuan and tiny, who are united in denying workers basic  
wages, benefits, and rights and are able to do so because workers  
lack voice and organization on the necessary scale.

This is an excerpted selection of an article that appears in the new  
issue of New Labor Forum. The full article is available in the magazine.

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