Workers at Walmart have been shaking things up on the job over the past several months, much to the chagrin of management and to the surprise of many. These actions may seem to come out of the blue, but there is a much longer history to them and very significant factors as to why they are arising now.
Actions began at Walmart distribution warehouses in southern California and Ellwood, Illinois. Warehouse workers walked off the job to protest retaliation against workers who filed legal action against the company for half a dozen unfair labor practices including failure to pay overtime and violations of minimum wages laws. Job walkouts soon spread to Walmart retail chains in twelve cities, including Miami, Seattle, and several locations throughout California. Workers walked out to protest working conditions including low wages and irregular pay, and retaliation against workers calling out Walmart for unfair labor practices.
Walmart met many of the workers grievances, providing more safety equipment, improving working conditions in the warehouses, and paying back wages for the time workers were out on strike. Walmart also promised not to retaliate against the workers who walked out. These victories may seem small, but for Walmart workers and all low-wage workers they could cause a change in the winds.
Working conditions for Walmart retail and distribution employees are a major catalyst for the recent actions. Warehouse workers are often forced to work in extremely hot conditions, move heavy packages at a fast rate, pushing the limits of their bodies to extremes. They work without proper safety equipment, including shin guards and other body protection.
Retail workers face similar conditions. Workers stand hours on end running cash registers. Work schedules are often quite irregular. Benefits are few and far between. Workers who organize to raise grievances about these conditions are faced with regular repression, harassment, and layoffs. These conditions are the reality of all low wage workers, not just unique to Walmart workers.
Low-wage workers are predominantly people who face other challenges that limit their access to higher paying work. This could include little access to education, poverty, devastated local economies, obligations to family and community, racism, sexism, heterosexism and homophobia, and more . Low-wage workers often do the toughest jobs in society from picking crops and cleaning toilets to childcare and retail. Workers in these jobs are often treated like they don’t exist, are heavily mistreated, ignored, silenced, and shut out of the political arena. This society dehumanizes people that are no different from everyone else. People with families, people that work hard to provide, simply because they don’t have a choice about where to work.
Walmart workers fare a very important part of low-wage earning workers who staff much of the retail job market. Walmart is the nation’s largest single employer, making their workers the largest single pool of low-wage workers. This puts Walmart workers of all kinds in a critical position to affect the working conditions of all low-wage workers and earners. Walmart workers could play a critical role in low-wage workers struggle for justice. These conditions make them incredibly important in any workers struggles and also underline why these recent actions are groundbreaking.
The biggest question about these actions is why it took so long for them to manifest. The terrible working conditions contributed to grievances between workers and the company. Thousands of women recently filed a class-action suit against Walmart to raise issue with unequal treatment of women on the job. Unions have been working hard for years to organize inside Walmart, trying to organize actions just like these to no avail. One might assume that under these conditions something of this magnitude would have already happened. Walmart, however, has been actively fighting any form of workers organizing all along, striking fear into all of its workers discouraging union activity.
The strikes and actions of Walmart workers do not exist in a bubble despite Walmart’s efforts to isolate their workers. Protests against austerity broke out around the world over the past several years. Walmart workers certainly have drawn some amount of inspiration from these struggles whether we are talking about the students and workers in Greece, the revolution in Egypt and the Arab Spring, the fight of public sector workers and communities in Wisconsin, the Occupy Wall Street movement, the students and workers in Quebec, or numerous other movements that broke out over the past few years.
All of these struggles at some level speak to the reality of all low wage workers, especially those at Walmart. All of these struggles are in opposition to growing austerity following the 2008 economic collapse. Walmart workers, as well as all low-wage workers, have been disproportionately affected by the crisis. It is no coincidence that these actions break out now, influenced by the successes of numerous student and worker movements. Walmart workers certainly draw inspiration from each other as well.
Organizing Walmart workers into a union to fight for a contract is a huge task. Labor Law requires all workers of a particular unit have the right to vote in a union election. Walmart’s retail chains are part of one corporate entity so all Walmart workers nationwide would have to be organized into one national contract. This would be a daunting feat and no one union has the resources to accomplish this.
Unions decided to take a different path in organizing at Walmart, instead of focusing on a contract. The unions implemented strategies similar to community groups that fight for workers’ rights and build solidarity from the bottom up. A few examples are the Restaurant Opportunities Center groups in major US cities, various Solidarity Networks, and several anti-poverty and housing justice groups.
These groups tend to focus more on fighting on a specific issue rather than fighting for an agreement with the bosses, landlords, and so on. They build struggles directed at employers and owners with specific demands from back wages and healthcare benefits to protecting workers from illegal firings, and various other related issues. These campaigns are successful because they do not seek a seat at the table with business. Instead, the focus is on applying pressure to the right places to make the bosses change their positions. The fight is on the particular issue and how to win it with no concerns about how their actions may affect contract negotiations.
This strategy allows workers to fight for their rights without the heavy burden of organizing for a contract fight. Workers face less repression from owners and bosses because they are not trying to bring in a union, making it easier to engage at-risk low-wage workers. The endgame is unionization for all workers, however, low-wage workers and workers in industries with high turnover often can’t risk their job to fight the bigger fight required to win a contract. Building campaigns in this manner allows them to gain experience in social struggle and prepare them for future ruptures that may offer greater opportunities.
These actions will have an indefinite impact on the future of Walmart workers. The workers showed that when they fight together, they can win. Organizing for workers’ power can always be productive, regardless of the oppression one faces or how tough the struggle can be. These are the workers that will lead the working class into the future and will play a critical role in the ongoing class struggle.
The next step for their struggle appears to be a possible strike or series of actions on Black Friday. There is no specific expectation to this point, but even the slightest disruptions of business as usual, even the slightest act of solidarity from consumers, could empower the struggles of retail workers and other low wage workers for years to come.