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How the Walmart Labor Struggle Is Going Global

What started as a warehouse workers’ strike in California late last year has grown into a global struggle against the world’s largest private employer.

“Workers of the world unite!” says the traditional slogan of the Industrial Workers of the World. The Wobblies, since their founding in 1905, have envisioned a global union capable of waging a worldwide general strike. By its height in the 1920s, the union was capable of mobilizing hundreds of thousands of workers. But while the Wobblies never fully realized international unity among workers, there is new promise for its vision today — thanks not to a union, but to a union-busting corporation: Walmart.

What started as a warehouse workers’ strike in California late last year has grown into a global struggle against the world’s largest private employer. The 2.1 million Walmart workers constitute the third-largest workforce in the world, following the U.S. Department of Defense and the People’s Liberation Army of China. And they are revolting.

Over 1,000 workers in Walmarts throughout Argentina went on strike on December 21, in solidarity with OUR Walmart workers in the United States, reported Josh Eidelson for The Nation. Those strikes, in turn, built on a December 14 global day of action when workers from Walmart stores in 10 different countries took to the streets in marches, rallies and protests against Walmart’s attempts to silence outspoken workers. Small cadres of workers from Uruguay, India, South Africa and the United Kingdom delivered letters to their countries’ respective corporate offices demanding an end to worker repression. The Chilean Walmart workers union expressed full solidarity with their North American counterparts and the Chilean government has already, for the next two years, banned the Walmart subsidiary Lider from bidding on government contracts due to its anti-union posturing — bad-faith bargaining, unfair firings and harassment of workers. Elsewhere in the world, Walmart workers actually tend to be unionized at a much higher rate than U.S. workers, and UNI Global Union Alliance has served as a clearinghouse for the international protests by trade unionists in support of the North American efforts.

In Brazil, more than 200 trade unionists from Força Sindical, UGT and CUT — the country’s largest unions — blocked the main entrance to a São Paulo Walmart while chanting, in Portuguese, “The Walmart dictatorship will end.” The spread of international solidarity follows Black Friday protests at over 1,000 U.S. stores that threw Walmart executives into the media spotlight for the company’s low wages, difficult working conditions and dangerous facilities.

In one widely-publicized incident, a Walmart-subcontracted factory in Bangladesh burned to the ground on November 24 of last year, killing 112 workers. In spite of Walmart spokespersons’ denials that Walmart was still associated with the factory, documents show that Walmart executives refused to upgrade safety standards in the factory while contracting with multiple suppliers in the past year. The tragedy sparked intense protests in the Bangladeshi capital of Dhaka, where thousands of workers blocked roads, forcing some factories to shut down for the day. In the United States, activists delivered a petition with over 200,000 signatures to Walmart’s lobbying headquarters in Washington, D.C., demanding that Walmart improve conditions in its factories.

Then, in mid-December, a shipment of Walmart garments from Bangladesh was met with “#BlocktheBoat” protests by Occupy Wall Street activists at a New Jersey port. According to Josh Eidelson, the 60 or so Occupiers weren’t able to engage in civil disobedience or stop the boat from unloading before being marshaled by law enforcement away from port entrances. Just days later, however, activists and port workers in South Carolina impeded a port for nearly two hours after the arrival of Walmart goods from Bangladesh — a short but symbolic disruption of Walmart’s vital, and thus highly vulnerable, supply chain.

‘Publicity stunts’

Walmart spokesperson Dan Fogelman has, in some senses correctly, tried to dismiss the walkouts and single-day strikes as “publicity stunts.” But these coordinated walkouts and public displays of protest are theatrics that allow Walmart workers and organizers to control and direct the unfolding narrative. Walmart management may no longer be able to punish outspoken workers as easily because of the very public nature of the dissent, which has met demonstrations of support among Walmart shoppers, community organizations and the media.

Although wildcat strikes alone aren’t likely to have a significant impact on the company’s bottom line, they serve as a kind of performative resistance that brings the attention of the employer, fellow employees and the public to bear on the issue. They have also been an organizing tool, building a greater base of workers willing to participate in future actions and campaigns.

Watching a co-worker walk out on the job can be a radicalizing, encouraging experience to witness, according to Mary Pat Tift, an organizer with OUR Walmart from Kenosha, Wis. “When there is a walk-out, it is noticed,” said Tift. “Some stores only have one or two members [walking out] — so what kind of impact can it have? By that one person standing up, other associates are taking notice of it.” Resistance is similarly contagious from store to store, and from country to country, across the Walmart supply chain.

Appearances matter, both for the workers and the company. Walmart’s success depends in part on its ability to present itself as a retailer that cares for and respects its customers and employees. Challenging that appearance through symbolic strikes and protests, which amplify personal stories through direct action, is already leading to increased public and legal scrutiny into Walmart’s practices.

A recent investigative report by The New York Times, for instance, alleges that Walmart used millions of dollars in bribes to sidestep legal and zoning procedures in Mexico. Revelations like this increase the likelihood that it will face legal action and fines for violating the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act. The resulting scandal could cost billions as investors withdraw their capital. As Walmart executives know well, mere publicity stunts, when paired with the company’s very real dirty laundry, pose a serious threat. Additionally, the Danish pension fund PFA Pension has promised to withdraw almost $8.8 million in investments from Walmart due to the retailer’s low standards for workers’ rights. And on January 10, a federal judge added Walmart as a defendant in a lawsuit brought by California warehouse workers that alleges millions of dollars in wage theft.

As the struggle expands, the company has begun to deploy a counter-strategy in response. In late December, Walmart announced that it would monitor its subcontracted warehouses with the same international monitoring system that it has for its factories — a promise, however, that drew widespread criticism in the wake of the Bangladesh factory tragedy. Walmart is on the defensive.

Bottom-up unionism

The focal points for organizing public actions and strikes include worker centers and associations, as well as broad-based community organizations. Many receive financial and institutional support from established unions — OUR Walmart and Making Change at Walmart, for example, are affiliated with the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union. Every step of the way, though, these actions depend on the workers themselves.

David Moberg, reporting for In These Times, notes how the kind of “open source” collective action that emerges from worker-leaders rather than paid organizers is a return to the community-based “alternative unionism” of the 1930s. In the United States, there is no single top-down national organization orchestrating the Walmart actions. Much like the Occupy movement’s encampments last year, the Walmart protests rely principally on local networks — stores, community groups, unions, student activists. An alliance between workers and tech-savvy Occupy veterans has made a formidable public relations force on social media. But the kind of activist-generated media that typifies low-wage workers’ struggles is also receiving a significant boost from media professionals.

The public-relations firm Berlin Rosen, hired by Making Change at Walmart, has helped coordinate media relations, lending the Walmart campaign a sense of consistency and focus among the disparate protests happening all over the world. Conducting media relations through international media calls and press conferences has given the campaign a focal point for the mainstream print and television media to report on the global breadth of the protest. Thus, even while the protests are a bottom-up phenomenon, coordination across national and international labor networks mean shared imagery and messaging that tie the global protests together. Adapting Walmart’s affable invitation to customers to “Save Money, Live Better,” workers, organizers and sympathizers are driving home a different message: Workers are “standing up to live better.”

Dan Schlademan, Making Change at Walmart’s campaign director, summarizes the cumulative pressure Walmart faces from an unlikely alliance of critics: “Tens of thousands of supporters,” said Schlademan in an email, “are standing with the OUR Walmart members whose voices they are hearing; pension funds are calling for changes at the company and Members of Congress have called for investigation into the company’s business practices.”

Thus, coordinated actions are beginning to turn Walmart’s global dominance into a new opportunity for uniting the struggles of workers around the world.

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