Organizing Walmart

by Paul Garver

 

walmart

Working for Respect: Community and Conflict at Walmart is not for breezy summer reading on the beach or in the mountains.  Save it for cooler weather at a comfortable desk in September. But if you are either a prospective or current labor organizer or labor studies major, do read it and take notes.  Other than actually becoming a Walmart “associate,” there is no better way to learn what it is like to experience “Walmartism.”

Organizing Walmart workers is both totally necessary for the future of the workers’ movement and a quixotic project that requires enormous persistence and a huge leap of faith.  It is the largest employer in the USA and in the world.  “Walmartism” combines a huge centrally controlled bureaucracy with the arbitrary authority of layer upon layer of managers in such a way that Walmart “associates” have little control over their working conditions and lives.

Reich and Bearman describe in excruciating detail how Walmart workers make sense of their jobs on the shop floor.   Their information comes from the experiences and reports of twenty student activists who spend an intensive summer researching and helping organize Walmart associates in five different urban areas in conjunction with OUR Walmart [Organization United for Respect at Walmart].

The major source of resources for the OUR Walmart project, the United Food & Commercial Workers [UFCW], pulled the plug on its commitment the same time that the students’ summer project ended in September 2015.

By then the students had undergone much conflict, learned a lot, but organized few associates. However their interviews with current and former workers prove an invaluable source of insights into the complex obstacles to organizing at Walmart.

Drawing on a wide array of methods, including participant-observation, oral history, big data, and the analysis of social networks, Working for Respect is a sophisticated reconsideration of this pivotal workplace.  The most detailed and valuable sections of this book describe the variety of reasons why folks work at Walmart, why they remain or leave employment, and which issues are most important for them.

Current union organizing models are not effective at Walmart given its sprawling scale and its sophisticated management methods. Since employees have various reasons why they work at Walmart, no single organizing method is a magic key that reaches all associates at each store.  And Walmart, owned by the wealthiest family in the USA, is ruthlessly determined to stamp out any organizing among its associates.

The authors, like the students and the UFCW,  can offer no easy answers.  They do share a few insights with the reader.  One is that issues like respect and dignity on the job  mobilize Walmart workers more effectively than purely economic demands.  Another is that while face-to-face organizing is crucial, but Walmart, social media networks have to play a major role in sustaining networks of workers across the vast sprawl of the Walmart empire.

There is nothing in this book about Walmart organizing in other countries, but I will add an observation about China, where Walmart is well established and growing.  Whereas Walmart in the USA and Canada has closed whole stores and departments rather than allowing any kind of union foothold, Walmart in China embraced Chinese-style management- and Communist Party- dominated “trade unions.”  Walmart associates in China who insist on real collective bargaining are shut out by management and “union” alike. Sporadic communications among Walmart employees persist mainly through social media.

Welcome to 21st century global capitalism!   The essential, though seemingly impossible,  task for workers is to overcome Walmart and its clones through self-organization.  This book provides a few useful hints how to begin..

Adam Reich is an associate professor of sociology at Columbia University. He is the author of Hidden Truth: The Young Men Navigating Lives in and out of Juvenile Prison (2010); With God on Our Side: The Struggle for Workers’ Rights in a Catholic Hospital (2012); and Selling Our Souls: The Commodification of Hospital Care in the United States(2014).

Peter Bearman is the Cole Professor of the Social Sciences and director of the Interdisciplinary Center for Innovative Theories and Empirics at Columbia University. He is the author of Relations Into Rhetorics (1993) and Doormen (2005) and coeditor of the Oxford Handbook of Analytical Sociology (2009), as well as coeditor of the Middle Range series at Columbia University Press.

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