This article is published as part of "American Labor at a Crossroads: New Thinking, New Organizing, New Strategies," a conference presented on January 15, co-sponsored by the Albert Shanker Institute, The Sidney Hillman Foundation, and The American Prospect. (View agenda here.) Find our Labor at a Crossroads series here.
On the first Friday in January, the executives of mall retailer Wet Seal held a conference call to inform hundreds of store managers that their stores were closing—effective just days later. Many workers had noticed extremely low inventories and extremely high markdowns during the holiday season, so it wasn't entirely a surprise that the stores were struggling. However, corporate executives had for months been telling store managers and front-line workers that nothing was amiss, there was no reason to look for other jobs, and they were just getting ready to refresh stores with new merchandise.
The news of the abrupt closures shattered the trust of employees, who began posting brutally honest signs in store windows detailing the chain's lies and its mistreatment of loyal employees, and calling for customers to #forgetwetseal. A photo of one such sign in a Seattle store rocketed to the top of Reddit and the hashtag exploded with messages of solidarity and indignation.
By all accounts, this outburst was organized by Wet Seal workers themselves. The store manager who posted the sign in Seattle reported she was motivated by a photo of a similar sign in an Ohio store posted by a pregnant worker who was losing her job; workers in other cities followed soon afterwards as the news spread through online networks. These are part-time, contingent, low-wage retail jobs—the kind most prevalent in the emerging workforce where traditional unions have long struggled to gain traction. And yet these workers organized a nationwide upsurge without assistance from any worker organization of any kind.
Riding a wave of retweets and upvotes, Wet Seal workers and customers flooded the internet with righteous indignation about corporate wrongdoing, which only intensified when they learned that Wet Seal’s CFO had just received a $95,000 raise. But two days later their nascent uprising was just a blip in the Buzzfeed traffic logs; it had almost completely fizzled out. Without a union or an ongoing organization like OURWalmart or the fast food campaign to tap, direct, and sustain the unrest, the story is quickly over. And anger at injustice calcifies into cynicism about the possibility of change.
We'll know we have developed a new, successful model for worker organization when the trajectory of stories like these is different.
If we had already found the right model for a powerful, scalable, sustainable organization uniting low-wage workers, then organizations like Working Washington would have learned what was happening at Wet Seal from the workers themselves, not Reddit. We would have been able to develop demands together, further amplify the message, and lay the groundwork for larger policy and organizing campaigns that confront the roots of income inequality. A broad-based worker organization that could successfully tap and channel this unrest would:
- Provide workers with organizing tips, stories from similar struggles, and information on their rights.
- Connect workers to each other to create networks of solidarity extending across different workplaces, industries, and geographies.
- Have the resources, flexibility, and skills to quickly reach out to workers engaged in these moments of unrest, and respond appropriately as events develop.
- Offer a vision and analysis that create possibilities to channel and amplify spontaneous unrest into changes in politics and policy.
Closing the gap between what we could do and our current reality requires us to figure out how we move people to identify with an organization focused on low-wage workers in general.
Our experience with the fast food campaign has shown that workers are willing to invest time and energy in connecting with each other, taking action to put their issues before the public, and doing what it takes to get their voices heard by political leaders. But it's not clear whether this level of investment is sustainable outside the heat of a campaign. After the $15 minimum wage ordinance passed in Seattle, worker engagement declined as the stakes became less sharp. In fact, winning can be a short-term detriment of a sort; the moment of victory can demobilize workers who identify their participation exclusively with the issue at hand. But permanent campaign mode is simply not possible either.
The window of a Wet Seal store in Seattle, in which employees posted a sign listing their grievances upon learning abruptly of the store's closing. The image rocketed to the top of Reddit as part of the workers' #forgetwetseal hashtag campaign.
In Seattle, we have seen some successes on workplace issues outside the heat of a historic city-wide campaign like that for the $15 minimum wage. For example, after participating in a strike, workers at a local Target store complained that not everyone there had a walkie-talkie—even though anyone could be written up for not responding to an instruction given over the walkie-talkies. They wrote a petition, gathered signatures, presented it—and a few weeks later, management ordered a whole bunch of walkie-talkies. There's little that’s new about this basic workplace organizing—except that it continues to be empowering and effective.
Of course, you can't run an organization on walkie-talkie campaigns any more than you can on minimum wage campaigns. It remains critical to build towards larger struggles and organize on a larger scale to change policy and take on income inequality. Hybrid models are worth exploring, where the organization itself isn’t entirely continuous. Imagine a tight but flexible organizational infrastructure sustained on an ongoing basis through voluntary worker contributions, with specific campaigns kick-started through crowdfunding to respond to fledgling campaigns as the need arises.
Worker organizations have seen a difficult few decades of declining income, power, and relevance. But organic worker unrest remains a real, living, untapped source of change. We are all asking the right questions now, and as we experiment to discover answers, it is increasingly possible to imagine a world where Wet Seal workers find each other in spaces we help them create, building an organizational infrastructure that can amplify voices, spark victories, and gain long-term supporters along the way.