Striking From the Bottom: The Walmart Wildcats

By Michael Reagan
Oct 17, 2012

It’s hard to overstate the significance of the events of the last two months for the labor movement. From walkouts, lockouts, strikes, petitions, mobilizations, slowdowns and many other kinds of resistance, workers are taking the initiative – and winning.

With the Chicago teachers strike, the NFL referee lockout, and now the Walmart wildcat actions, labor and workers have a string of victories behind their back that could mark the beginning of a new direction for working people in the United States.

Most important are the Walmart strikes –actions in a dozen states involving hundreds of workers –a remarkable turn of events against a firm notorious for its hardline anti-unionism and harsh and inhuman working conditions.

This couldn’t be a starker contrast from the kinds of hand wringing that followed the Wisconsin recall failure just a few months ago, where union and progressive Democrat mobilizations failed to oust Wisconsin governor and class warrior, Scott Walker.

So what’s the difference?  What’s happened in the last four months to shift the momentum of the movement, and the narrative in the press, from one of decline and defeat to one of resurgence?

The Walmart wildcats represent a fundamentally different type of organizing from that utilized in Wisconsin and traditional unionization efforts. In the Walmart strikes, workers are taking action for themselves, at the point where they are strongest: their ability to withhold and leverage their labor against the short-term needs of their employer.

OUR model / Solidarity Unionism

Behind the string of recent actions at Walmart is an organizing effort of years, called OUR Walmart, Organization United for Respect at Walmart, that has worked in conjunction with other community support organizations like the UFCW’s Making Change at Walmart campaign, and the coalition group Warehouse Workers United. Organizers from these groups have had to take a nontraditional approach to the Walmart organizing effort.

Walmart is a notorious anti-union firm. Only two stores have even come close to unionizing, both in Canada, where labor laws are much stronger. The first store, an outlet in Jonquiere, Quebec, was closed after workers voted to join the UFCW. The message to the workers from Walmart was clear: vote for a union, lose your job. After the Jonquiere closure a second store in Canada voted to disaffiliate. These rather dramatic actions came on top of Walmart’s normal union busting activity, a strategy called TIPS - a program to “threaten, intimidate, promise and spy” on any worker suspected of union activity.  

Such hostility meant that in the United States, organizers would have had to unionize a significant portion of the company – a majority of the 1.4 million Walmart employees – at the same time if they hoped to win. Only the U.S. and Chinese governments employ more people than the retail corporation. 

Solidarity unionism offers a dramatically different vision from the type of top-down organizing typical for contemporary mainstream unions

The odds seemed overwhelming. A majority of Walmart employees, hundreds of thousands of people, would have had to vote yes in the face of staunch employer opposition.

So organizers turned to a “non-majority” strategy. Rather trying to win representation elections and gain legal recognition, organizers sought to build worker power through small organized groups taking direct action. This model, called “solidarity unionism,” offers a dramatically different vision from the type of top-down organizing typical for contemporary mainstream unions; indeed, only movement offshoots like the radical IWW routinely practice it. Labor historian Nelson Lichtenstein calls the model a “return to labor formations of the 1930s . . . [more like] an association–they aren’t looking for legal certification, they don’t claim to represent everyone.”

Instead solidarity unionism seeks to empower workers through immediate actions they can take for themselves. In an interview on Democracy Now!, Mike Compton, a worker at the Elwood, Illinois warehouse explains how the model works and the strike wave developed:

We first started organizing [around] sexual discrimination. Our managers tried to send one of the girls home because she wasn’t throwing like a man, or she wasn’t keeping up with the men, is what she was told. And that’s what really brought us all together. We kind of marched onto management and told them that, you know, if she goes, we go. After that, somebody came up with the idea for the petition, you know, and it just kind of grew from there. We started out with just a couple signatures. By the end of it, I think we had the majority of the temps had signed the petition. And like I said earlier, when management refused to take our petition, that was it. There were about, I think, just under 30 of us when we walked out, and it just kind of grew from there. Every couple days, we’d get a couple more, couple more people joining our picket line.

Importantly, workers themselves are at the forefront of this fight. Workers like Mike Compton collectively pick the issues, pick the tactics, organize, and mobilize their co-workers. From Compton’s perspective, the unions have played a supportive role, but the leadership is in the hands of the workers.

With small groups like these organized around the country, the strike spread quickly. Nearly all Walmart warehouses and stores face similar deplorable working conditions, with quota rates that drain workers, unsafe conditions that lead to frequent injuries, extreme temperatures, irregular employment, unpaid wages, threats from management, frequent retaliation, and wages so low workers often rely on public assistance to meet their needs. When a small handful of workers in California and Illinois walked out, work committees in states like Florida, Washington, Tennessee, Arkansas, Alabama, and Mississippi, quickly went out with them, sparking the first strike in Walmart’s 50 year history.

Coalition groups like Making Change at Walmart and Warehouse Workers United provided crucial support at this stage. With only a small minority of workers 

Winning small victories are part of the solidarity model: tangible gains attract more workers, more workers means greater strength, and victory begets victory  

turning out at each store or warehouse, coalition groups could mobilize outside support for the picket lines. In Elwood they blockaded the warehouse, preventing containers from moving, prompting Walmart to call in private police to arrest demonstrators.

This combined strength of worker and community activists forced Walmart to back down. Workers at the Elwood warehouse were brought back and substantial gains were made, like new ceiling fans, improved safety equipment, and back pay for workers – including for the time they were on strike. All this was unthinkable against a behemoth like Walmart just a few months before. Winning small victories like these are part of the solidarity model: tangible gains attract more workers, more workers means greater strength, and victory begets victory.  

While things look good for the Walmart workers right now, it’s going to get tough in the coming months. Walmart will likely retaliate against those most heavily involved in the actions through firings, reductions in hours, or changes in work routines. How workers are able to defend themselves and fight back at that stage will be crucial for the course of the campaign.

Wildcat Politics

The strikes are also politically significant. They represent a turn toward bottom up organizing and away from the traditional kinds of union work, top-down models and electoral mobilizations that have been the bread and butter of mainstream unions for the last several decades. Behind that turn is widespread disaffection with the Democrats and a series of Democratic failures including Obama’s refusal to support the Employee Free Choice Act, the Wisconsin recall vote failure, and Rahm Emanuel’s attack on Chicago teachers.

Particularly significant is the Wisconsin failure. Unions turned from direct action at the beginning of the Wisconsin uprising – like the capitol occupation, walkouts, sick-ins and strikes (where workers are strongest) - to electoral organizing where dollars largely determine outcomes. When Walker outspent his opponent by a factor of 25 to 1, with most donations coming from outside the state made possible by the Citizen’s United ruling, a union failure wasn’t secured, but the prospects for success became much less probable, even with the “ground campaign” run by unions, building on the upsurge of popular outrage over Walker from the year before.

Additionally, the recent strike actions should be seen in light of the presidential election looming just around the corner. The Chicago Teacher Union strike last month couldn’t have come at worse time for the Democrats. Typically unions are reluctant to strike before an election. For one, in the lead up to elections, strikes 

This year the Democrats modified their party platform to remove their support for the EFCA and other specific legislation that would benefit workers.

make incumbent Democratic allies look bad. And in the crucial few months before a vote, strikes divert attention, staff time, and resources from supporting preferred candidates. In Chicago, both Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan expressed support for union busting Rahm Emanuel. The CTU, with a left-inspired leadership, fewer ties to the Democrats, and a community outreach and organizing model in place for a couple years, could take action that other unions might not have.

And while still small, disaffection with the Democrats only seems to increase. This year the Democrats modified their party platform to remove their support for the EFCA and other specific legislation that would benefit workers. Increasingly union rank and filers, staffers, and even leadership are supportive of the kinds of actions taken by the Walmart workers and Chicago Teachers Union.

Turing point for unions?

The coming fight will be long and hard, and trends discussed in this article are still very small, but the Walmart wildcats are a very good development. The organizations that support them have now promised to continue the fight by taking action on Black Friday, the largest shopping day of the year. They also have the legal resources to help protect workers who may be retaliated against.

Most importantly, they can help support and sustain the direct actions of workers themselves to shift the balance of power. That shift, striking from the bottom, at the largest employer and retail outlet in nation, can have reverberations throughout the working class and labor movement. As Walmart workers empower themselves and improve their conditions, others take notice. Their success diminishes the appeal of more traditional approaches, as the old paths offered by union leaders and Democratic politicians look less and less promising in the face of a direct action campaign that is getting the goods. 

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the entire War Times project

Michael Reagan is an organizer with the Seattle Solidarity Network andstudent at the University of Washington where he studies the history ofAmerican capitalism.

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