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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Join The Fight for $15

$15DSAThousands of people across the country will be taking part in a huge strike for better pay and working conditions  on April 15.  From fast-food to home care, airport, construction, and Walmart workers to adjunct professors and other underpaid workers, folks from every corner of the country and the globe will be joining together across industries on Tax Day, April 15th, for the Fight for $15.

Will you stand with them this Wednesday? Find an action near you.

You and I know that it’s inevitable in the capitalist system for bosses to exploit workers. But it’s not just happening at the level of individual workplaces. Corporations must compete with each other or die, and that means avoiding expenses as much as possible. Low-wage workers struggle to make ends meet and, if they can navigate the deliberately complicated application process and the constant shaming that comes with public assistance, they get the support they need from taxpayers while their employers get off the hook for paying higher wages. That’s what I call corporate welfare.

All workers deserve a union to demand their fair share of the fruits of their labor, but in the meantime, let’s demonstrate that collective action can be society-wide, not just in one workplace. It’s good practice for building a movement for democratic socialism. Continue reading

Walmart to Cut off 30,000 Workers from Health Insurance

Amid Soaring Profits, Walmart to Cut Off 30,000 Workers From Health Insurance

Largest private employer in U.S. announces elimination of insurance for part-time workers and across-the-board hikes in premium costs

by  Sarah Lazare, staff writer, Common Dreams

English: Walmart Supercenter front end in Hage...

Walmart, the largest retailer in the world and the biggest private employer in the United States, announced Tuesday it is eliminating health insurance for 30,000 of its workers and hiking the costs of premiums across the board.

The cutbacks to coverage, which many charge was insufficient to begin with, were met with immediate criticism.

“Our schedules and hours are all over the place, and I often find less than I expected and less than my family needs when I see my paycheck,” said Nancy Reynolds, a member of OUR Walmart and worker at a Merrit Island, Florida Walmart store. “Taking away access to healthcare, even though many of my co-workers couldn’t afford it anyway, is just another example of Walmart manipulating the system to keep workers like me in a state of financial crisis.” Continue reading

Workers at Walmart cite poor conditions

by Dave Anderson

Where will the next big movement come from? Fights in the workplace can be the training ground. Photo: OUR Walmart.

Photo: OUR Walmart.

This month, something quite remarkable happened in America. Hundreds of Walmart workers who don’t have a union stood up to the company, knowing that it has a long history of illegally retaliating against its employees. In a high unemployment economy, they went on strike for a short time and protested at the firm’s annual shareholder meeting. They are members of the employee group Organization United for Respect at Walmart (OUR Walmart).

In Boulder, the Coalition for Social and Environmental Responsibility in Boulder (CSERB) supports OUR Walmart by picketing the Walmart at 28th and Iris every second Saturday of each month.

CSERB leader Matt Nicodemus points out that this strike was “not the same as a unionized worker joining a company-wide work stoppage. Though she is part of a widespread collective action and therefore within her rights to strike, the associate may be the only one protesting within her own store and managers have all sorts of ways of intimidating and punishing ‘troublemakers.’ It takes real bravery to step out and publicly challenge the company in that way.” Continue reading

Walmart’s Women Can’t ‘Save Money’ or ‘Live Better’ with Wages and Hours Like This

by Sarah Jaffe

ourwalmart_jaffe(June 4) Walmart, the world’s largest retailer (and America’s largest private employer), occupies a rather strange place in the business landscape: a technologically innovative company with a down-home reputation – a low-wage, low-benefit employer that prides itself on a family atmosphere. Walmart masks the lousy working conditions that make its profits with its particular form of market populism: millions of “Walmart moms” can’t be wrong for wanting to “save money, live better”, can they?

But Wednesday, as the company’s shareholders prepare to meet in Bentonville, Arkansas,  a bunch of Walmart moms are aiming at the company’s already-shaky public perception. According to the Organization United for Respect at Walmart (Our Walmart), mothers who work at Walmart stores in more than 20 cities nationwide  are on strike. They’re taking a common media trope and a  key part of the company’s own public image and turning it on its head: Walmart, they say, is not a good place for mothers.

It’s not just the low wages (although a raise wouldn’t hurt):  a new study out this week from the non-partisan think tank Demos  highlights more than just the difference a raise to $25,000 a year would make for Walmart’s workers and others in the retail sector. Amy Traub at Demos looked at the effects of erratic scheduling – specifically on women who hold the majority of low-wage jobs in the sector – and concluded:

The impact of scheduling can be profound: without a stable and predictable work schedule, incomes fluctuate and workers cannot budget effectively.

Continue reading

No Metaphor Here: The WalMartization of Public Education

by Martin Kich

Walmart_2_croppedAlthough the more overtly political spending of the Koch brothers has received much more attention, the Walton Family Foundation has, not surprisingly, been one of the major supporters of right-wing think tanks and public-policy experiments. Long a major donor to the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research and the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, the Walton Family Foundation has also become the major source of private funding supporting the development of charter-school alternatives to public schools, contributing more than $1 billion to charter schools over the past decade. Nationwide, more than one-quarter of the new charter schools have received “start-up” grants from the Walton Family Foundation. In the April 25, 2014, issue of the New York Times, Motoko Rich reveals these facts, among many others, about the Walton Family Foundation’s funding of what amounts to extensive Far-Right social engineering. [The full article is available at: http://www.nytimes.com/2014/04/26/us/a-walmart-fortune-spreading-charter-schools.html.]

This funding has insured that some of the charter schools have been tremendously successful—for instance, the four schools operated by D.C. Prep in the nation’s capital. But studies are now providing much concrete evidence that there is a very substantial gap between the performance of the most successful and selective charter schools–typically highlighted in materials promoting charter schools–and the majority of the charter schools, which are operated by for-profit corporations rather than by non-profit foundations. These would include most of the charter schools that now educate about half of the students in Washington, D.C. (There is a parallel, here, in the advertising for on-line for-profit universities, which typically features already successful professionals seeking additional credentials though those students are hardly typical of the majority of students at those institutions, who are seeking certificates and associate degrees.)

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Walmart Moms’ Walkout Starts Friday

by Sarah Jaffe

For years, Walmart workers have protested the company's low wages and unfair treatment of employees. This Friday, a week before the company's shareholders meet, hundreds of 'Walmart Moms' will begin walking off the job. (OUR Walmart)

For years, Walmart workers have protested the company’s low wages and unfair treatment of employees. This Friday, a week before the company’s shareholders meet, hundreds of ‘Walmart Moms’ will begin walking off the job. (OUR Walmart)

For years, Walmart workers have protested the company’s low wages and unfair treatment of employees. This Friday, a week before the company’s shareholders meet, hundreds of ‘Walmart Moms’ will begin walking off the job. (OUR Walmart)

In 2008, political commentators made a lot of fuss about “Walmart Moms,” a demographic that was supposedly key to the election. The Walmart Mom was an updated, service-economy version of the blue-collar worker: Someone without a college degree, working and raising a family, usually white, possibly religious. She was courted heavily by both parties and perceived, at least in recent decades, to be swinging right.

Six years later, the real-life Walmart Moms are going on strike. According to a Thursday conference call hosted by the Organization United for Respect at Walmart (OUR Walmart), hundreds of mothers who work at Walmart stores throughout the country will begin walking off the job on Friday, a week before the company’s shareholders meet in Bentonville, Arkansas. The action will culminate in a nationwide strike on Wednesday, June 4.

Continue reading