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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Demand a Real NAFTA

Demand a Real NAFTA Replacement that Puts People & the Planet Ahead of Corporate Profits

Dear Duane :

Replace NAFTATrade officials are racing to complete their renegotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) within the coming weeks — and, not suprisingly, corporate lobby groups are pushing hard to ensure that NAFTA provisions that make it easier to outsource jobs, drive down wages and pollute the environment are maintained.

TAKE ACTION: Sign the petition demanding that any NAFTA replacement protects jobs at home, protects human rights abroad and raise wages and protects the environment continent-wide.

For decades, NAFTA’s intentionally weak and ineffective labor and environmental standards have enabled big corproations to outsource jobs to Mexico, where they can pay workers less than $2 an hour and dump toxins with impunity, and then ship products back for sale in the United States.

Roughly a million U.S. livelihoods have already been destroyed, with more jobs outsourced every week.  And the impact in Mexico has been even worse.  Not only have millions of livelihoods been destoryed there, but manufacting wages in Mexico are now 9% lower than they were before NAFTA was enacted.

NAFTA also grants corporations vast new privileges that make it easier to outsource jobs while empowering them to attack the environmental and health laws on which we all rely.

PLEASE ACT NOW: Tell Congress that NAFTA’s replacement must end the race-to-the-bottom job outsourcing.

Already, multinational corporations have grabbed $392 million in taxpayer money using NAFTA’s infamous Investor-State Dispute Settlement (ISDS) tribunals.

ISDS empowers corporations to sue governments before a panel of three corporate lawyers. These lawyers can order taxpayers to pay the corporations unlimited sums of money, including for the loss of their expected future profits.

The multinational corporations only need to convince the lawyers that a law protecting public health, a food safety regulation or a pro-environment court ruling violates their special NAFTA rights. The corporate lawyers’ decisions are not subject to appeal.

We cannot let this continue.

That’s why Citizens Trade Campaign’s powerful coalition of labor, environmental, family farm, faith and consumer organizations — along with many others — are joining our voices together with this demand:

Any NAFTA replacement deal must eliminate ISDS and end the job outsourcing and add strong labor and environmental standards with swift and certain enforcement to raise wages and protect the environment throughout North America.

Please add your name to the petition now.

Together, we can make a difference.

Many thanks,

Arthur Stamoulis, Executive Director
CITIZENS TRADE CAMPAIGN

Online: citizenstrade.org
Twitter: @citizenstrade

Donate Online Now to Support Our Work

A Call Center Coup: Ex-Teamster Boots Riley Tackles Telemarketing And its Discontents

by Steve Early

When I was a union rep, one of my most challenging assignments was assisting a Communications Workers of America (CWA) bargaining unit at a Boston-area telemarketing firm. Most CWA members in New England had call center jobs at the phone company, with good pensions, health insurance, and full-time salaries. As service reps, they fielded in-coming calls from customers with problems, questions, or new orders to place. In contrast, the telemarketing staff only interacted with the public, on behalf of various clients, via out-bound calling. Like the workers depicted in Boots Riley’s hilarious new film, Sorry to Bother You, they made cold calls to people who did not want to bothered, at dinner time or anytime, with a pitch for a new product, service, or donation to a political cause.

            Even with a union contract, CWA’s telemarketing members in Somerville, Mass. were an unhappy lot—and for good reason. Their work was machined-paced by a “predictive dialer.” The quality of the lists they called, for fund-raising purposes, varied widely. Their base pay was low and earning more required navigating a byzantine bonus system.  Benefit coverage was skimpy compared to the phone company. Yet, when we tried to negotiate improvements, a company whose clients included major environmental groups and Howard Dean’s presidential campaign hired Jackson, Lewis, a leading anti-union law firm to drag out bargaining for months and soak up money that could have been spent on its workers.

This particular call center was filled with “over-educated” part-timers, juggling other jobs or careers, because it did offer flexible hours. Nobody planned to stay long, however, because who wants to spend all day enduring rejection—hang-ups, name-calling, cursing, or long conversations with lonely people who end up giving or ordering nothing, because they are short on cash too.

            Amid such shop-floor frustration and discontent, the telemarketing industry does produce stars–brilliant phone conversationalists who can charm almost anyone out of a few bucks for a magazine subscription, a charitable organization, political cause or candidate. Now 48 years old, Boots Riley was briefly one of those top performers when a mid-1990s downturn in his music career forced the founder of The Coup to seek employment in what is now a $24 billion industry.  He had already done a stint, as a Teamster part-timer, loading packages for UPS in Oakland; this time, to pay the rent, he picked up a headset instead, at a call center in Berkeley. As Riley’s hometown alternative weekly, The East Bay Express revealed last week, he toiled under “a punk manager with an anarchy tattoo who enticed workers with cash bonuses to ‘make the grid,’ office parlance for raising money. “

            A co-worker familiar with his rap albums recalls hearing Boots use “the same gravely, raspy voice, I knew from Genocide & Juice going, ‘Sorry to bother you, ma’am, but…’” Riley put his past experience as a door-to-door salesman to good use, carefully calibrating his pitch for each assigned fund-raising project. “It was me using my creativity for manipulative purposes,” he confessed to the EBE. “Like an artist who could make a cultural imprint instead figures out what font makes you buy cereal.”

Manic Energy

            Fortunately, for millions of potential viewers of Sorry to Bother You, Riley has also found a way to turn his call center experience—shared by millions of other U.S. workers—into a rare Hollywood film dealing with race, class, and the tension between personal ambition and collective action in the workplace. The first-time director employs the manic energy of a Spike Lee movie, rather than the slow, last century pacing of Jon Sayles, to produce one of the best depictions of labor organizing since Matewan (or Norma Rae and Bread and Roses, for that matter).

The workers involved aren’t the usual blue-collar union suspects—i.e. mill workers, coal miners, or immigrant janitors. Instead, they’re Bay Area denizens of the “new economy,” multi-racial millennial office workers stuck on the lower rungs of a regional job market offering tantalizing riches (and even affordable housing) for some, but a far more precarious existence for many others.

In Riley’s film, which opened nationwide last week, his fictional alter-ego is Cassius (“Cash”) Green, a struggling young native of Oakland played by Lakeith Stanfield. Cash is behind on his rent and living with his artist girlfriend Detroit (Tessa Thompson) in the converted garage of his uncle, whose home is facing foreclosure. “I just really, really need a job,” he desperately informs his soon-to-be-boss at Regal View, an Oakland telemarketer. Instructed, as all new hires are, to “stick to the script,” Cash stumbles through his first days of toil in a grim, crowded room full of partitioned workstations. Before being sent to their cubbyholes to dial for dollars each morning, Cash and his fellow “team members’ are subjected to a pep rally, led by managers who range from the moronic to demonic. (One urges them to employ their “social currency” to better “bag and tag” customers.)

Cash does poorly, with his phone contacts, until an older African-American colleague (Danny Glover) offers him some elder wisdom. “Hey, young blood. Let me give you a tip. Use your ‘white voice.’”  Once any hint of Cash’s race or class background is scrubbed clean from his delivery, he starts making powerful connections with his telemarketing targets, zooming quite literally into their living rooms, dining rooms, bedrooms, and even bathrooms to make sales.

 His reward, before long, is promotion to “power caller.” He becomes part of the Regal View elite, working many floors above the low-dollar calling room floor,  in office splendor of the Silicon Valley corporate campus sort. Cash now wears a suit and tie to work, carries a brief case, and makes marketing calls to potential multi-million dollar clients of Worry Free. The latter is a global manpower agency led by Steve Lift, a tech industry titan with adoring fans and a new book entitled I’m On Top. Played by Arnie Hammer, the charismatic Lift is a cross between Steve Jobs and Hugh Hefner. Among Cash’s rewards for being a top “power caller” is the chance to party with Lift at his Playboy-style mansion; there he gets offered an even more lucrative but truly compromising position at Worry Free.

Revolt of the Precariat

Meanwhile, down in the lower depths of Regal View, a revolt of the precariat has been brewing—and before his personal ambition got the best of him Cash was part of it. Led by Squeeze, a young Asian-American caller (Steven Yeun), the “lowly regular telemarketers” are secretly planning to unionize. On an agreed upon day, all head sets are downed, fists get thrust into the air, and the telemarketers

stage a 20-minute work stoppage, chanting “Fuck you, pay me” (no messaging confusion there).

As this labor-management dispute escalates into a full-blown strike replete with mass picketing and police brutality reminiscent of Occupy Oakland, Cash crosses the picket-line, only to become increasingly distraught by the choice he has made and ambivalent about its material rewards (a fancy car and swank new downtown Oakland loft!). “I’m doing something I’m really good at,” he tells one striker. “I’ll root for you from the sidelines.” But that’s not good enough for his feisty and creative girlfriend who threatens to leave him.

In the end, faced with the loss of Detroit and permanent estrangement from his own community and former co-workers, Cash becomes a fellow rebel against the worldview represented by Regal View and Worry Free. He blows the whistle on the latter’s sci-fi scheme to bio-engineer greater labor productivity and enslave workers, under the guise of providing them with “lifetime housing and jobs.”

            The movie has a happier ending for the employees of Regal View than Riley’s real life co-workers experienced several years after the director left Stephen Dunn & Associates, the telemarketing firm that employed him in Berkeley more than two decades ago. In 1999, the East Bay Express reports, staff members there began a four-year struggle for union recognition, aided by Local 6 of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU). Their long legal battle, against blatant union-busting, only ended when management moved the whole call center to Los Angeles.

            In Sorry to Bother You, Steve Lift, the evil CEO of Worry Free, ends up reaping what he sowed. If only more workers struggles had a similar denouement, we’d all be better off. In the meantime, Boots Riley—Oakland activist, musician, and now film-maker extraordinaire—has made labor organizing in an almost entirely non-union industry seem doable and definitely worth the bother.

(Steve Early was a telecom industry organizer and union representative for 27 years. He is the author of four books on labor and politics, including Refinery Town: Big Oil, Big Money, and the Remaking of An American City, published by Beacon Press last year. He can be reached at Lsupport@aol.com)

NAFTA’s Problems

Ask Your State Legislators to Speak Out Against ISDS

Corporate lobby groups are freaking out!  They’re upset the word is finally getting out about the damage that Investor-State Dispute Settlement (ISDS) can cause to jobs, the environment and public health.

TAKE ACTION: Please write your state legislators urging them to join others speaking out against the ISDS corporate power grab.

As you may know, the United States, Mexico and Canada are currently renegotiating the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).  One of the proposals on the table is to remove Investor-State Dispute Settlement (ISDS) provisions from NAFTA altogether.

Unsurprisingly, wealthy corporate interests are fighting tooth-and-nail to save this system that lets them profit at the expense of our democracy.  Among many other steps, they’ve gone so far as to air television ads in support of ISDS in Washington, DC.

The current ISDS system enables transnational corporations to challenge federal and state laws, local land use ordinances and even court decisions before arbitration panels of three corporate lawyers.  These ISDS panels can award unlimited sums of taxpayer money, including for the loss of future profits.  The corporations need only convince panelists that a law, ordinance or court ruling violates the expansive rights granted to them under NAFTA.  Their decisions are not subject to appeal.

Continue reading

Should Unions Abandon Exclusive Representation?

After Janus, Should Unions Abandon Exclusive Representation?

Three labor experts discuss how unions should move forward after the SCOTUS Janus decision.

BY KATE BRONFENBRENNER, CHRIS BROOKS, SHAUN RICHMAN

Report on the Labor Notes Conference

by Guy Miller

“The beating heart of the labor movement.” That’s how the moderator of the Friday evening April 6th plenary session of the 2018 Labor Notes (LN) Conference introduced six West Virginia school teachers. The teachers were fresh from a historic victory in their unauthorized – and unexpected – strike. The same could be said about the conference itself: it represented the beating heart of American labor. The record 3,200 activists who attended the three-day Chicago conference were living, fighting proof of that.

https://rdln.wordpress.com/2018/04/15/the-beating-heart-of-the-labor-movement-report-on-the-2018-labor-notes-conference/

Is Traditional Union Organizing a Lost Cause?

The Most Successful Union Organizer in America Thinks Traditional Organizing Is a Lost Cause

On the latest episode of “The Bottom Line” podcast, David Rolf of the SEIU explains why worker advocates need to move to a different model.

https://capitalandmain.com/the-most-successful-union-organizer-in-america-thinks-traditional-organizing-is-a-lost-cause