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Walmart's Exploitation Is Nothing New, So What Made Workers Finally Fight Back?

The nation's largest employer has long been the Holy Grail for labor organizers, seemingly impossible to organize -- until now.
 
 
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The following is reprinted with permission from   Religion Dispatches. You can sign up for their free daily newsletter  here.

Last month, when strikers from Southern California arrived in Bentonville, Ark., to protest Walmart’s labor practices with reggae beats, pots and pans, and a Latin American-inflected protest culture, it became clear to onlookers that America’s superstore was no longer the small family business that Sam Walton had founded and grown in the cradle of the anti-labor culture of Southern evangelicaldom. But it’s also become clear that Walmart’s own ambitions to become a global empire -- expanding beyond southern suburbs to new regions, and continuing to erode protections for its workers -- have brought the “family values” behemoth into confrontation with another kind of religious and labor rights tradition.

Walmart has long been the Holy Grail for labor organizers. The nation’s largest retailer, it is notorious for its low wages, lack of benefits, abusive labor practices, and for leaving its workers dependent on public assistance while making the Walton family rich beyond imagination. And it has been nearly impossible to organize.

Until now.

Today, again, Walmart workers are on the picket lines outside warehouses in Mira Loma, Calif., and more actions are expected elsewhere as the workers build their campaign. In October, 28 Walmart facilities saw retail workers walk off the job in protest, in stores from California to Maryland, Texas to Washington. Warehouse workers at Walmart distribution centers outside Chicago and in Los Angeles have also gone out on strike -- and won. The full reinstatement and back pay granted to the workers (averaging $900 for each) was unprecedented, leading one of the strikers to comment, “I think there’s been a hit in Walmart’s armor.” 

The retail employees are part of the Organization United for Respect at Walmart (or OUR Walmart), an organization backed by the United Food and Commercial Workers union. The group has skipped traditional labor organizing in favor of broad-based campaigns for fair treatment that have drawn on the support of surrounding communities, and particularly of faith leaders. Traditional union elections have been nearly impossible to win at Walmart -- the company even closed a Canadian store that voted for one -- but even without an official union, workers taking collective action on the job are protected by labor law.

On the picket line and in Bentonville, in conference calls and statements to the media, the workers have charged that the company retaliates against workers who speak up about their conditions by cutting their hours or changing their schedules. They demanded a halt to such actions by November 23, “Black Friday,” the biggest shopping day of the year. (AlterNet Editor's note: Since this story first appeared at Religion Dispatches, Black Friday protests by Walmart workers and allies took place at Walmart sites across the nation.)

Walmart’s reputation as a Christian company has been one of the reasons the retail giant has been notoriously hard to organize. The company embedded itself in a particular brand of free-enterprise-friendly Southern evangelical Christianity that, as historian Bethany Moreton pointed out in her book,  To Serve God and Walmart, helped win the loyalty of its massive corps of service workers.

But the combination of longtime workers feeling betrayed by the company, newer workers who never felt that loyalty to begin with, and the fact that for so many years the company paid lip service to Christian values in lieu of fair wages, is leaving Walmart vulnerable to labor uprisings.

Low Wages as Family Values

When Walmart began, deep in rural Arkansas, its first workforce was made up largely of women who’d never worked for wages before. Those women brought with them a particular ethic, Moreton explained, of humble service to their community that had deep roots in evangelical Christianity.