by Amy Dean
United Food and Commercial Workers’ Pat O’Neill talks about the difficulty of organizing retail and the new tactics that have been developed, shoppers’ support and Walmart workers’ extraordinary courage in the rolling actions leading up to Black Friday.
This fall has witnessed a wave of rolling strikes and other employee actions at America’s largest private-sector employer: Walmart. The actions, spread across more than a dozen cities, have been the first in the retailer’s 50-year history. This week, things are set to get bigger: Walmart associates across the country are now promising pickets, leafleting, and creative flash mobs on and around Black Friday, the busiest shopping day of the year.
One of the main groups involved in planning the actions has been OUR Walmart, a labor-community organization for Walmart employees, backed by the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW). Rather than going through the arduous process of forming a traditional union by signing up majorities in each store, they have developed a more flexible process for employees to get involved early on. Smaller groups can use OUR Walmart to take collective action to advocate for rights and for better conditions. Such advocacy harkens back to the early days of the US labor movement, before the labor laws of the New Deal institutionalized processes for collective bargaining. It may also be a bellwether for future employee action, reflecting an age in which labor law has again failed to catch up with the reality of the American economy.
To get inside insight on the new activism taking place at Walmart, I talked with UFCW Organizing Director Pat O’Neill. We discussed the rolling strikes, the revived use of “minority unions,” and why OUR Walmart is not calling for a boycott.
I started by asking how many employees are part of OUR Walmart.
“It’s in the thousands of workers who are paying the $5.00 a month in membership dues for OUR Walmart,” O’Neill replied. “There are a lot of others that are not paying, but they’re active. On Black Friday, our goal is to have in excess of 1000 Walmart workers striking, and there will be many more that take some other form of action.”
I asked what sort of message the public will be getting on Black Friday.
“The public’s going to be asked to support Walmart associates as they fight for better hours and better working conditions and as they call on the company not to continue with reprisals against workers for their organizing activity,” O’Neill said. “It’s two-fold: we want people to support the workers in pushing for better conditions, but also in standing up for their organizing rights.”
I next asked about his hopes in terms of the outcomes from the rolling actions.
“We want to put pressure on the company and let them know that the workers are upset, ” O’Neill responded. “We want the company to know that they’re not going to squash them in their endeavors to organize by taking retaliatory action. The workers are not just crawling under the table and hiding. They’re actually taking stronger action; they’re upping the ante, if you will. When Walmart changes somebody’s schedule, suspends someone, or terminates them even for their organizing activity, the rest of the workers are upset over it and know about it.”
Pointing to a long history of unsuccessful organizing at Walmart, I asked what he thought today’s employees have learned from some of these past efforts that haven’t been successful.
“I think the past efforts weren’t successful because it’s always difficult in retail, period,” O’Neill said. “It’s not like one plant. The workforce doesn’t have that much camaraderie with each other. There are so many people at the store; there are part-time hours. A lot of workers don’t even know each other. Then you lay on hundreds or thousands of different locations, it makes organizing under the [National Labor Relations Act] very difficult. Even if you get in at one store, then you got to worry about whether you can get a contract.”
“The old way of organizing that we did didn’t work,” he said. “Now we really studied the history, not just what we’ve had with Walmart, but the civil rights movement and the beginning of the labor movement, what the United Auto Workers (UAW) and others did back in the ’30s. That’s where we came up with the concept of minority unionism and trying to hook people up with each other, even if there’s only one activist in one store.”
“Traditionally, it was all about signing cards, then holding an election and hoping you win. You don’t charge dues or anything until after you get a contract. With OUR Walmart, workers put some skin in the game up front with a five-dollar-per-month contribution. They buy into it and want to do it. I think those two pieces are really major differences from the past.”
I pressed further, asking what he thought Walmart associates themselves have learned from the past efforts to organize.
“It’s really encouraging if you meet with the workers,” O’Neill said. “Their courage is very inspiring. We have young workers, 19 years old, and older workers too. There’s a real wide range, a lot of women. With a lot of them, for instance, this is the first time they ever got on an airplane. They get on an airplane and come down to Bentonville, Arkansas and march on the headquarters of the company.”
“I think back to myself, I went through a UAW campaign right out of high school. When I was 19, I think I’m a young, tough guy or whatever. But was I tough enough to get on an airplane and go fight my employer’s headquarters? I’m really impressed with the workers, and I’m also impressed with them when I hear them speak. They’re very eloquent and they all have stories about their situations.”
“This really is not like a traditional campaign. The workers themselves like Walmart; they like working there; they like working with the public. They just see a path to make Walmart better. The more that they see they’ve made some incremental changes in individual stores – on scheduling, on suspensions, by banding together and getting the management to correct things – that’s encouraged them and given them courage to take larger actions. That’s why we’re seeing the strikes now.”
I noted that it was clear that they wanted to raise awareness about the violations employers are committing against the workers’ right to speak out. I asked what the workers were asking consumers to do, and if they were calling for a boycott.
“We’re going to talk to consumers. Sometimes we’ll ask them if they will put a sticker on before they go in to shop, showing that they support Walmart associates and they support associates’ right to organize. In some cases, we ask consumers to talk to the store management and tell them that if they don’t treat them right, leave hands off, that they might take their business elsewhere.”
“We’re not calling for a boycott. We think that’s a dead end. We would’ve done that a long time ago if we thought that was an avenue of success.”
O’Neill continued: “The real connections are between the workers and the customers. It becomes personal. A lot of customers at Walmart are in the same boat as the workers at Walmart and they recognize the working conditions.”
“You’re always going to get some naysayers that say, ‘Be thankful you have a job,’ or ‘If you don’t like it here, go somewhere else.’ Our response is, ‘That’s not the American way. The American way is to make this job better. You don’t have to quit this one, just go find another one. There’s tools to make it better.'”
I finished by asking O’Neill about his hopes for the future – what he thought Walmart employees could accomplish in a two-year or a five-year time span.
“I’d like to see the workers gain more of a voice in the conditions of their employment, gain greater job satisfaction, and gain some appreciation from their employer.”
Amy Dean is a Fellow of the Century Foundation and co-author, with David Reynolds, of “A New New Deal: How Regional Activism Will Reshape the American Labor Movement” and is president and founder of ABD Ventures. She worked for nearly two decades in the labor movement and now works to develop new and innovative organizing strategies for social change organizations. You can follow Amy on Twitter at @amybdean, or she can be reached via http://www.amybdean.com.