In the last few months, an unprecedented wave of labor unrest has shaken the retail giant Wal-Mart and its far-reaching supply chain. While the number of employees taking part in walkouts has been limited to the low hundreds, workers and labor activists are mounting pressure and threatening to stage a company-wide strike on Black Friday—the busiest shopping day of the year.
The Black Friday walkout is being organized by the Organization United for Respect at Wal-Mart (OUR Walmart), a group of Wal-Mart employees formed last year that works closely with the United Food and Commercial Workers union, or UFCW. OUR Walmart, which organized walkouts in October, is pushing for better working conditions, benefits, and an end to alleged retaliation by management.
The Black Friday strike would add yet another chapter to a wave of worker protests across Wal-Mart’s supply chain. It all began in June when a group of immigrant guest workers at a Wal-Mart seafood supplier in Louisiana walked off their jobs. In September, workers at company warehouses in California and Illinois went on strike. The workers in Illinois eventually won back pay. California workers weren’t so lucky—they started striking again last Wednesday. Shortly after those warehouse strikes began, retail workers backed by OUR Walmart started walking out of stores in 12 states.
Wal-Mart is painting the striking employees as a minority that’s unrepresentative of its workforce. “The opinions expressed by this group don’t represent the views of the vast majority of the more than 1.3 million Wal-Mart associates in the U.S,” says Wal-Mart spokesperson Dan Fogleman. “Throughout all of these union-staged events, all of our stores were staffed up and open for business as usual. Likewise, we will be taking care of our customers on Black Friday and are looking forward to helping shoppers get a great start to the holiday shopping season with some great merchandise and our unbeatable prices.”
Part of why the recent actions are so remarkable is that Wal-Mart is one of the most notoriously anti-union companies in the country. Based in right-to-work Arkansas, the retailer has maintained an almost entirely union-free workforce for most of its existence, even once resorting to shutting down a store in Quebec shortly after a successful union drive there. The company has never before dealt with coordinated labor protest on this scale. “In the past, Wal-Mart would fire people, would threaten people … and that would be enough to stop people in their tracks,” said Dan Schlademan, director of Making Change at Walmart, another organization backed by the UFCW which works closely with OUR Walmart. “The difference now is workers are using Wal-Mart’s own tactics to challenge the company and not backing down. Really, for the first time in Wal-Mart’s history, the tools that are used to keep people silent and under control are now being used against them. That’s significant.”
Indeed, OUR Walmart has framed its strikes and the upcoming Black Friday action as an “unfair labor practice strike”—that is, as a response to the company’s alleged retaliation against employees. Workers have already filed a handful of unfair labor practice charges with the National Labor Relations Board—the independent federal agency that governs labor relations in the private sector. While Wal-Mart employees aren’t unionized, they’re still covered under the National Labor Relations Act, which protects the right of nonunion workers to go on an unfair labor practice strike without being permanently replaced.
Venanzi Luna, a deli manager at the Wal-Mart in Pico Rivera, California, said she’s witnessed management retaliate against her co-workers. At Luna’s store, where she and some of her co-workers went on strike in October, workers have filed two unfair labor practice charges. “If an associate speaks out, they retaliate by taking their hours, not giving them full-time hours, they write them up, they can ‘coach' them,’” Luna says. “It’s the little things that that they do, whatever they can file, anything for them to retaliate against associates that are either part of OUR Walmart or speak out against [Wal-Mart]. They’ve gotten to the point where they’ve fired associates because of it.”
When asked to address those allegations, Fogleman said that the company has “strict policies prohibiting retaliation.” He adds: “If someone feels they have been retaliated against, we want to know about it, so we can look into it and take the appropriate actions to resolve the situation,” Fogleman says.
OUR Walmart isn’t trying to push for union representation for Wal-Mart workers. The campaign is organizing behind a broad set of demands by building a network of allies and trying to pressure the company. “The fundamental difference is this isn’t a collective-bargaining organization, it’s a rights-based organization. At this point, there’s not a battle for a collective-bargaining agreement, there’s a battle to change the company,” Schlademan said of OUR Walmart. “All the other things that are the heart and soul of the labor movement and of workers’ organizing are there, which is collective action, workers pulling their resources together so they have a bigger voice, and utilizing the public to educate and build power to change the company.” As the organization builds toward a Black Friday strike, OUR Walmart is partnering with the nonprofits Engage Network and Corporate Action Network to spread the message to Wal-Mart workers and potential allies nationwide. Organizers have set up a website where the general public can access a list of picket lines and “sponsor” strikers by making a donation.
Given the size of the company, it seems unlikely that the strikes will affect Wal-Mart’s profits on one of its biggest days of the year. But whatever the participation rate proves to be on Black Friday, Schlademan said that OUR Walmart is in it for the long haul. “It’s gotta start somewhere. … Workers are having enough. You look at the sit-down strike, you look at the civil-rights movement, you look at the women’s rights movement, you look at anything, you look at Occupy, right? It started off with a few people sleeping in a park, and it grew,” Schlademan said. “So this is a process—people are building a movement inside of Wal-Mart, and they’re building a movement outside of Wal-Mart. What was in October was the beginning. What’s gonna happen on Black Friday will be a continuation of that ... and this will just continue to build.”