Saving Our Unions: Dare to Struggle, Dare to Win?

Steve Early

Steve Early

Any review of the recent ups and downs of U.S. labor must start in Michigan, long a bastion of blue-collar unionism rooted in car manufacturing. Fifteen months ago, this Midwestern industrial state became another notch in the belt of the National Right to Work Committee, joining the not-very-desirable company of Texas, Oklahoma, Alabama, and twenty other “open shop” states.

The emergence of sun-belt labor relations in the birthplace of the United Auto Workers (UAW) was shocking to some. But this political setback was preceded by high-profile defeats in neighboring states that began in 2005. First Indiana, followed by Wisconsin and Ohio, stripped public workers of their bargaining rights (although the Republican attack on government employees was later repelled by popular referendum in the Buckeye State). Then in early 2012, GOP legislators in Indiana passed a right-to-work law applicable to private industry. It banned any further negotiation of labor-management agreements that compelled workers to make a financial contribution to the cost of union representation, in established bargaining units or newly organized ones.1

In November 2012, organized labor tried to buck the emerging anti-union trend with two ballot questions designed to strengthen public-sector bargaining rights in Michigan. Despite the expenditure of many millions of dollars by affiliates of the AFL-CIO and Change To Win, both measures were defeated.2 In its lame-duck session just a few weeks later, GOP legislators in Lansing took retaliatory aim at union security in Michigan’s private sector. When the region’s latest “right to work” bill landed on his desk, Republican Governor Rick Snyder was most pleased to sign it into law. Continue reading

Black Friday Actions Empower Wal-Mart Workers

Wal-Mart touts a caring culture. Now, its workers are caring for each other by speaking out.

by  Sarah Jaffe

Colby Harris, a Texas Wal-Mart worker fired after striking, traveled to New Jersey to inspire other Wal-Mart workers at a November 29 'Black Friday' action. (Sarah Jaffe)

Colby Harris, a Texas Wal-Mart worker fired after striking, traveled to New Jersey to inspire other Wal-Mart workers at a November 29 ‘Black Friday’ action. (Sarah Jaffe)

‘When I saw the food bins in Ohio, it made me think, “Employees are not just hungry on Thanksgiving, they’re hungry every day because they’re getting paid low wages,” ‘ says Tiffany Beroid, a worker at a Wal-Mart in Laurel, Md.

“I’ve come today to represent all the silent Wal-Mart workers that are afraid to stand up for their rights,” Elaine Rozier, a Wal-Mart employee of eight years, told a crowd of about 150 labor activists and community supporters—accompanied by raucous musicians with Occupy Guitarmy and the Rude Mechanical Orchestra—on Friday in Secaucus, N.J., across the street from a well-guarded Wal-Mart and Sam’s Club (the wholesale club owned by Wal-Mart and named for the company’s celebrated founder, Sam Walton). “I’m standing up for my rights, my kids, my grandkids, and their kids,” Rozier said.

Perhaps because of the fear she mentioned, Rozier, who comes from Miami, was one of the only identified Wal-Mart employees in the crowd. Along with Mark Bowers and Colby Harris, two Wal-Mart workers from Texas, Rozier traveled to New Jersey for Black Friday, Wal-Mart’s biggest retail sales day, to demonstrate to the workers inside the Secaucus store that they, too, could stand up for their rights.

Accompanied by ten supporters, the three workers blocked traffic on the street alongside the Wal-Mart, chanting, singing and clapping until police took them away in handcuffs.

The protest was one of hundreds of Black Friday actions organized by OUR Walmart, a United Food and Commercial Workers-backed group of Wal-Mart workers—including Rozier, Bowers and Harris—that has been putting on strikes, protests, and direct actions at Wal-Mart for over a year in support of better wages, benefits and conditions. The first wave of strikes hit in October of 2012, and on Black Friday of that year, some 400 workers reportedly went on strike at stores around the country.

“Stand up, live better” has become the rallying cry of the movement, a twist on the retail giant’s own slogan, “Save money, live better.” On Friday, workers in Secaucus repeatedly echoed the “stand up” line. Continue reading

What’s Next for Walmart Strikers

Josh Eidelson has written an extremely informative and important feature article for The Nation  “The Great Walmart Walkout.”  He interviews workers, organizers and labor scholars about the Black Friday walkouts.  He includes both skeptical  and optimistic views.

For instance,

“I feel hopeful,” says [Cornell University's Kate] Bronfenbrenner, “and I haven’t felt hopeful about Walmart workers ever before.” She cites the historic nature of the strikes, the breadth of supply chain organizing and evidence of significant leadership development among workers. “Obviously Walmart is a tough company to crack,” she says. “But Walmart right now is the one that’s off-balance, not the union, not the workers… As long as we have the world’s largest corporation feeling like it’s not quite in control, I think we have a lot to be hopeful about.” She notes that historically, unions have often had to build strength through years of concerted activity, including strikes and incremental improvements in working conditions, before finally winning formal recognition from industry behemoths like General Motors. “Huge national contracts are very hard to get,” says Bronfenbrenner. “But they’ll get there.”

Continue reading

Thoughts Since Black Friday

by Street Heat

Walmart (3)I participated in the Black Friday action. No workers struck at my location but dozens of supporters held a spirited and effective action that a) received really good media attention that highlighted the demands of the Wal-Mart associates and b) successfully rattled the cage of store management. All in all a fun day. Nationally the picture was much more varied from strikes with dozens of strikers and hundreds of supporters to a single supporter or striker (yes one striker) picketing a store by themselves. I wanted to share some thoughts on the implications of the Black Friday strike and protests.

  • The strike was a successful escalation. The number of workers participating increased. A new layer of leaders seems to have stepped up since the earlier strikes. A broad spectrum of allies showed up to support the workers. Wal-Mart desperately tried to dismiss the actions as tiny and irrelevant. The key was to for OURWalmart to successfully show thatWalmarts intimidation campaign had not pushed the Associates back, in fact that new additional leaders stepped forward to carry out this series of strikes showed the capacity or OURWalmart to grow despite management’s campaign.
  • The strike was a watershed moment for labor. Not because any Wal-Marts were shut down or not, but because WalMart’s image as a benevolent employer has been effectively challenged in American public discourse. Illustrated by John Stewart on the November 27 Daily Show

JS_WMemployeestrikeback

   [To watch the John Stewart segment, click here.]

The degree to which the strikers and the supporters were portrayed as leading a just fight by many media outlets was a critical blow to anti-worker PR in general.

  • The notion that changing Wal-Mart was key to change America and creating a new economy is now firmly established among American progressives. Before there was tepid support among many liberals who perceived the Wal-Mart struggle as just another union “pet issue”. It is now common wisdom among the progressive blogosphere and academia that Wal-Mart’s role in the supply chain is a key roadblock to economic justice for ALL workers.
  • This is where I piss people off. I was disappointed when I noticed that a broad swath of the labor movement sat out the Black Friday action. I was mortified to find out that some large UFCW locals opted to not build or participate in actions. The more this campaign is seen as simply a project of the UFCW International by local UFCW unions, the more difficult it is going to be to build the grassroots infrastructure needed to expand the campaign. The active support and participation UFCW local unions and the full support of labor councils and other labor organizations are key to generating community support and protection  for the OURWalmart activists that will give them the much needed “breathing space” to continue to organize and grow. Bureacratic abstention, Grudges and petty divisions blocking particpation in these HISTORIC actions are the equivalent of high treason in the moment of both peril and opportunity for our entire movement.

There I said it. Let me have it.

Street Heat is a a union activist in the south, He blogs at It’s About Power Stupid! Thinking Strategically About Labor’s Survival,

My Chicagoland Black Friday in words and pictures

 by Bob Simpson

As I was writing this blog post on Sunday morning, news came from the Associated Press about the real human cost of our Black Fridays:

“DHAKA, Bangladesh (AP) — At least 112 people were killed in a fire that raced through a multi-story garment factory just outside of Bangladesh’s capital, an official said Sunday. Bangladesh has some 4,000 garment factories, many without proper safety measures. The country annually earns about $20 billion from exports of garment products, mainly to the United States and Europe. Bangladesh’s garment factories make clothes for brands including Wal-Mart, JC Penney, H&M, Marks & Spencer, Carrefour and Tesco.”

Walmart stocks up on products manufactured under deadly sweatshop conditions. It organizes Black Friday sales knowing they can touch off riots in their stores. Then Walmart sends security guards and police after peaceful demonstrators who only seek justice in the global workplace. Who said irony is dead?

I didn’t hear of any Black Friday shopper nastiness in Chicagoland, but there were a number of peaceful demonstrations against Walmart and other retailers who exploit and abuse their own employees and supply chain workers around the world.

My Black Friday began at around 4:30 am with a drive from my home in Oak Park to Bedford Park, a suburb south of Midway Airport. The United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) had rented a hotel meeting room there as a staging area for Walmart protestors, plus buses to carry them to several Chicagoland Walmart stores and eventually to downtown to support food and retail workers there.

It was dark and deserted within the complex of hotels, but when I found the yellow school buses, I knew I was in the right place. Once in the lobby, a UFCW staffer saw me  and guided me to their meeting room where staff people were already giving away lime-green Our Walmart tee shirts, buttons and signs. About 30 people were there drinking coffee and munching on donuts.

Dumping on low-wage workers is lousy direct action

by Sarah Jaffe

(Walmart Black Friday Strike Facebook page)

The picket line outside the Secaucus, N.J., Walmart at 1 p.m. on Black Friday was joyous, festive and celebratory. The sousaphonist from the Rude Mechanical Orchestra had the slogan “Stand Up, Live Better” around the rim of his instrument, and banners declared solidarity with the striking Walmart workers and support for union rights. They called on the world’s largest private employer to pay its workers a living wage and stop retaliation — the firing or punishing of workers who speak out about their working conditions. The crowd sang “Solidarity Forever” in all its glory, shaking fists at the “greedy parasites.”

At least as far as I could tell, though, there were no striking workers at this particular Walmart.

Around the country, hundreds of Walmart workers walked off the job on Black Friday, the notorious shopping day after Thanksgiving. Organizers say that a hundred cities saw strikers and a thousand total protests were held, covering all but four states, in an escalation of an ongoing campaign led by the Organization United for Respect at Walmart (OUR Walmart). They drew support from Occupy organizers, unions, community members and elected officials; Congressman-elect Alan Grayson walked one striker out of a store in Florida, and Senator Sherrod Brown of Ohio told me, “I commend the workers who are exercising their rights to protest in order to improve conditions for other working Americans.”

Continue reading

Will Black Friday be a Tipping Point?

Although written a day before the historic Black Friday strike and support actions, this post by Street Heat makes  some really important points including this whether  Black Friday could be “‘tipping point’ that both validates a new model of organizing large service sector employers and leads to a new upsurge in organizing and worker militancy?”–Talking Union

by Street Heat

(Nov. 22)  Tomorrow, “Black Friday”, Walmart Associates across the country will be walking off the job to stand up for their right to organize and to protest management retaliating against their members for standing up. No one really knows exactly how many people will walk off the job during the busiest shopping day of the year, but whatever the number, it is clear that Black Friday has brought the issues the workers face to the forefront of the public consciousness. In that alone they have one victory in the bank.

Continue reading

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