Liza Featherstone

Voting for Hillary Because of Her Gender Doesn't Make You a Good Feminist - Bernie's Record Is Better

The following is an excerpt from the new book False Choices: The Faux Feminism of Hillary Clinton edited by Liza Featherstone (Verso, 2016): 

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McDuped: Why Fast Food Chains Are Inhumane

Around the United States, fast food workers have been striking and picketing, demanding a raise from $7.25 to $15 an hour, and the right to organise a union.

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Labor Head Andy Stern Has Some Unusual Corporate Bedfellows

When Andy Stern, president of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), and Lee Scott, CEO of Wal-Mart, appeared onstage together in early May, the pairing drew attention. The occasion was a lunchtime meeting of Better Health Care Together, a coalition of business, labor and political leaders, at a Hilton hotel in New York City. Stern had initiated the coalition with a letter to all the Fortune 500 CEOs inviting them to work with him on a solution to the nation's healthcare crisis. He says he was surprised that Wal-Mart -- and so many other companies -- responded. "When I write letters to CEOs," he explains matter-of-factly, "I usually don't get a response."

Outside the Hilton, several hundred men and women wearing United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) T-shirts, some of whom had come all the way from Maine and Pennsylvania, picketed the event, objecting to the "hypocrisy" of Wal-Mart CEO Lee Scott's appearance. Scott is accustomed to dodging protesters; his company has been engaged in a bitter public relations battle with the UFCW for years, with the union charging that Wal-Mart routinely violates the right to organize and offers stingy health benefits.

But the Wal-Mart boss wasn't the only target of righteous ire that day. The union activists were also upset about the presence of Andy Stern. "People feel he has sacrificed some of the basic principles of the labor movement" by appearing onstage with the Wal-Mart CEO, said Pat Purcell, an organizer of the Hilton picket. One of those principles is solidarity. "Our union is losing members every single day because of Wal-Mart," explains Purcell, director of special projects for UFCW Local 1500. "When we ask for help from other unions, we don't mean, You can have lunch with them but not dinner!" Though Purcell says he has "great respect" for Stern, he and other unionists feel that Stern enabled a public relations stunt by Wal-Mart, aimed at making the company look socially responsible.

Inside the Hilton, Stern was more popular. Over a dry repast of chicken, Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell hailed Andy Stern and Lee Scott as "the odd couple of healthcare." Stern beamed when Arnold Schwarzenegger, who spoke by satellite, thanked him for his "great leadership."

To be fair, this moment aside, Stern's relationship with Wal-Mart is hardly chummy. SEIU continues to fund Wal-Mart Watch, an organization dedicated to relentless criticism of the retailer's practices, and this year the union will allocate more funding than ever to such efforts. In March Stern gave a speech at a Bank of America gathering blasting Wal-Mart for undermining "fair competition" and adopting practices that were "bad for business overall."

But many in the labor movement view Stern's overtures to Scott as typical manifestations of his business-friendly unionism, more focused on partnering with employers than on joining other progressives in a struggle against corporate power. Stern's 2006 book, A Country That Works, is full of statements like "employees and employers need organizations that solve problems, not create them" and "all parties want a mutually beneficial relationship based on teamwork." (Sometimes the business-speak in this book reaches comic proportions; at one point Stern praises civil rights icon Jackie Robinson as "a change agent who endured indignities as a pathbreaker.") Stern has unsettled many of his staff by publicly suggesting that he might not be against Social Security privatization or school vouchers (one organizer in the Midwest probably speaks for nearly everyone in SEIU in calling such statements "a bunch of horseshit ... in fact we are against those things"). Paul Krehbiel, an organizer who until recently worked for SEIU Local 660 in Southern California, points out that Stern briefly attended the Wharton business school before becoming a social worker: "Andy's just doing what he started out doing. He loves the business community!" Rose Ann DeMoro, executive director of the California Nurses Association (which competes with SEIU to organize nurses), bluntly calls Stern "the neocon of the labor movement."

Many progressives would be startled by DeMoro's characterization of Andy Stern. His union is the employer of choice for many idealistic college graduates. That's only in part because the membership of SEIU -- African-Americans and immigrants toiling in underpaid jobs -- inspires a natural solidarity from the left. It's also because Stern's personal style is agreeable to middle-class progressives. The 1960s-generation, University of Pennsylvania-educated former social worker is reflective and contemporary, not macho or swaggering like many old-school union leaders. He's also willing to try new things, and like many of his generation harbors a profound contempt for stagnant bureaucracy. These attitudes can be refreshing in a labor leader. Even photo ops with Scott can be attributed to this aspect of his temperament: When Stern is asked about his perceived coziness with business, he is quick to insist that he is pragmatic, often using phrases like "it's not academic" or "these are real-life choices" to suggest that critics are ideologues or pie-in-the-sky idealists.

Stern is also an internationalist. He's assigned SEIU staff to Australia, Poland, England, India, France, Switzerland, Germany, the Netherlands and South America, with an eye to running global campaigns pressuring multinational employers. As Stern explains in his book, "Imagine simultaneous protests on service contractors' global clients, or outsourcing strikes to countries where strikes are legal and will not provoke government retaliation." When SEIU was having trouble organizing American security guards employed by the Swedish firm Securitas, it sought help from the Swedish Transport Workers Union, which had a good relationship with the company. Securitas agreed to drop its opposition to the union drive.

More controversially, Stern has formed relationships with the Chinese state union, which has been been criticized for helping the government suppress workers' rights. Stern, who played a key role in forcing Wal-Mart to allow the union into its Chinese stores, believes that a cold-war approach to China is obsolete. When I interviewed him, he had just returned from his sixth trip to China. "Our members and their members work for the same employers," he explained. "I just think workers' solidarity has a lot more possibilities when you're not dealing with ideology."

Another reason to cheer for Stern is that in a time of dismally declining union density, SEIU under his leadership has added members and seen some victories, improving the lives of home health aides, janitors and security guards, some of the country's most exploited workers. In May, for example, 4,000 Los Angeles security guards joined SEIU as part of a nationwide campaign to raise standards in that industry. Ruth Milkman, director of the UCLA Institute for Research on Labor and Employment, has called SEIU a "model of dynamic unionism," pointing out that "no other union has been more effective in organizing the unorganized in recent years."

But many observers wonder what Stern's new federation, Change to Win (CTW) -- founded with great fanfare when he led six other unions in a split from the AFL-CIO in September 2005 -- has thus far accomplished. ("Press releases," grumbles one internal skeptic. "Where is it headed? is something a lot of people here are asking.") Milkman, who championed the formation of CTW in articles, op-eds and scholarly work, calls it "a bit early to assess this" but agrees that "it is fair to say that, to date, there is not much to point to in the way of concrete organizing victories that were the work of Change to Win itself."

Within SEIU most people agree that Stern has been quite successful in implementing what is often referred to by his union's foot soldiers as "the program": building density in the union's three industries, building services -- the public sector and (most of all) healthcare. During his tenure, the union has grown by 980,000 workers (some of that growth has come about through mergers, but the "vast majority," according to SEIU communications director Steve Trossman, are newly organized members).

Stern believes that unions are losing political power -- and bargaining power -- because they represent a declining share of the population (at present, 12 percent of the workforce and 7 percent of private-sector workers). More controversially, he believes the only way to reverse this sorry state of affairs is to sign up more members by just about any means necessary. Many within SEIU worry that this near-exclusive focus on growth is hampering the union's ability to serve its existing members; they observe that with more resources directed to organizing, and more emphasis on consolidating small locals into larger organizations, it's becoming harder for workers to find their union rep or file a simple grievance. If union members don't feel the union is serving them, organizers say, they begin to ask why they are paying dues. Former SEIU organizer Krehbiel points out that in Stern's "200 page book, if there was half a page about current dues-paying members, that was quite a bit." Stern acknowledges the problem, but says, "You can't be islands of strength in a nonunion sea. ... The history of the labor movement is that we polish the pearls we have rather than trying to extend what we have to other people."

Stern is also coming under fire within the labor movement for, as CNA's De Moro puts it, "organizing corporations, not workers." Perhaps because Stern's views on these issues are so public, he's come to personify an increasingly common phenomenon in unions: a "partnership" approach to employers. Often, this means that companies agree to recognize the union if a majority of workers sign cards ("card check") in return for concessions from the union that will help boost company profits.

Many organizers -- inside and outside SEIU -- say that workers signed up for union membership in this manner aren't as committed to the union as those who have won membership themselves, through a fight in which they were personally engaged. This matters especially when the "partnership" sours and the union faces a decertification campaign. Krehbiel acknowledges that workers signed up for SEIU in this way are "better off" than they would be without the union. But, using a metaphor evoked by several other people interviewed for this article, he said of Stern's emphasis on density, "He's building this huge shell, hoping the size will somehow carry us."

To many others, the idea of post-class-conflict partnership obviates a union's most basic purpose: to defend workers' interests. To DeMoro, Stern's view of a union's role amounts simply to supplying capital with workers -- and managing those workers. "To him, the union is just a human resources department," she says. "Or a temp agency." (DeMoro is an outspoken Stern critic. But committed SEIU staff members interviewed for this article -- mostly on the condition of anonymity -- shared most of her concerns. As if they were working for Wackenhut or Wal-Mart, some were even afraid to communicate using SEIU e-mail addresses or phones.)

But there's an even more controversial aspect to Stern's commitment to "partnerships." In his book, Stern writes that unions should "add value" to companies and assist "employers in overcoming unnecessary legislative and political obstacles to their success." These ideas have played out in recent contracts. Internal memos -- obtained by SF Weekly -- show that two large SEIU locals had made a deal with a group of California nursing homes, in which SEIU agreed that workers would not speak out publicly against abuse of patients, or health code violations, and would lobby for limiting patients' right to sue. (SEIU later backed out of its commitment to tort reform.) In exchange, the union could organize a certain number of nursing homes without interference. The SF Weekly story was based in part on an internal report from one of the largest locals involved in the deal, United Healthcare Workers West (UHW-West).

Such deals raise questions about how far unions should go in this vaunted pursuit of density. Many wonder if it is wise in the long run to act against progressive ideals in order to win new members. Working against patients' rights could, after all, alienate natural allies. Backroom moves like this also undermine the union's efforts to emphasize common interests among healthcare workers and patients. In June SEIU launched SEIU Healthcare, which will push for reforms like improved nursing staff-patient ratios and more training for nurses, changes that would be in the interest of members and would also, as SEIU's Steve Trossman is quick to point out, "improve the quality of care."

When I asked Andy Stern about the deal discussed in the UHW-West memo and the SF Weekly article, his response was strange and contradictory. He at once questioned whether SEIU had in fact made such a deal, claimed he wasn't familiar with the details and blamed the local. (Much of the criticism of the nursing home deals -- inside and outside SEIU -- has been directed personally toward Stern, and it is clear from some UHW internal documents that the local holds the international at least partly responsible.) Stern admitted that sacrificing principles for growth is a danger in partnership deals but pointed to the complexity of organizing in today's workplace: "Here's the question we face. Ninety percent of nursing home workers in this country live pretty much in poverty. Don't have unions. Don't have healthcare. All of our activities to date to solve that part of the problem have not worked. So every day, nursing home workers go to work and they're poor." To some organizing in the SEIU trenches, their boss's realism resonates -- to a point. "We've negotiated some really shitty contracts," says one staff member. "Sometimes you have no choice -- you just keep trying to build density and hope you build enough power to get a better deal next time." But even this veteran of labor realpolitik said he was surprised by the California contract: "The tort reform is bad!"

What's more, Stern's business-friendly orientation appears to influence his approach to national policy questions. More problematic than the photo-ops with Lee Scott, Stern's crusade for "healthcare reform" is vague ("not even an inch deep," according to one SEIU researcher). His support for any sort of change has been promiscuous: He's praised Mitt Romney's Massachusetts plan and Arnold Schwarzenegger's proposal in California, which have been criticized as giveaways to the insurance industry and don't adequately address affordability or cost issues. Asked if the Better Health Care Together Coalition has agreed on anything more than the fact that there is a problem, Stern says, "That's probably all we will agree on." Of a single-payer system, Stern said in a speech given at the Brookings Institution, "I think we need to find a new system that is not built on the back of the government. I am here to also say I don't think we need to import Canada or any other system." One SEIU staff member says sadly of such comments, Stern "doesn't hold social democracy in high regard."

Stern is not oblivious to the suffering caused by health insurance companies denying care -- a problem that none of the incremental plans he supports can address. But to him, the problem of insuring the uninsured is the paramount moral question: "It's a question of, How are we going to get everybody covered?" Then, Stern thinks, something more like a single-payer system will be more politically palatable: "Once we have everybody covered we're going to realize there are more efficient ways and less efficient ways. More costly and less costly ways to do it."

Stern's views on this are significant because several other major labor unions and other progressive groups -- buoyed by Michael Moore's new movie -- have been campaigning to pass single-payer healthcare in California. SB 840, written by State Senator Sheila Kuehl, passed the State Senate, 23 to 15, in early June and is headed to the Assembly. Given the tremendous public interest in and the widespread frustration with the current system, many activists think we have the best opportunity in years for comprehensive reform. Stern's lack of enthusiasm for single-payer healthcare is one of the main reasons the California Nurses Association, a longtime independent union, joined the AFL-CIO this year when that federation agreed to support single-payer. Explaining why it is so important that unions work toward this goal, CNA's DeMoro, whose union is leading the California fight, explains, "There has never [in any country] been a single-payer healthcare system without the labor movement."

To the CNA, Stern's refusal to put his political weight behind single-payer is unconscionable. "The single biggest obstacle to single-payer healthcare in this country," says Michael Lighty, CNA's policy director, "is Andy Stern." I laugh at this, thinking of a few others (the insurance industry and American individualist, anti-government ideology, to name a couple). But DeMoro clarifies her colleague's point with an analysis of the current fight in California: Stern "is the biggest obstacle to moving the Dems, because he gives them cover to do nothing."

However, when asked about single-payer, Stern insists he's not against it: "We supported Howard Dean, and he was for single-payer." (In fact, when Dean ran for President, he said he would not propose such a system, because it wouldn't pass Congress. He also said, "I do not believe in free healthcare or free anything. ... If you want to totally reform the healthcare system, I'm not your guy.") More significant, Stern claims that in California SEIU has been lobbying for Sheila Kuehl's bill and expects to support some version of the governor's as well. Indeed, besides the CNA, he boasts, SEIU is "probably the leading supporter" of the single-payer bill. Those involved in pushing for that bill in Sacramento were, to put it mildly, surprised by this contention (reactions ranged from "outrageous" to "bullshit -- absolutely not!"). SEIU has turned out members to some hearings in support of the bill but has not otherwise been active in the fight. Yet Stern's statement is, in a Clintonian way, true: SEIU has formally endorsed SB 840 and is one of the largest organizations to do so.

Nationally, Stern says, SEIU is supporting a single-payer "Expanded and Improved Medicare for All" bill introduced by Representative John Conyers, in addition to several other healthcare proposals moving through Congress. Defending his strategy of lobbying for multiple, often conflicting, reforms, Stern is (almost) self-deprecating: "People at the Brookings Institution joke, Next month we're going to have four different proposals about universal healthcare and Andy Stern's going to be supporting all four." To justify his support of tepid reforms, Stern tells me several heartbreaking stories about people he has met who have no healthcare, including a man in Minnesota who sat with his wife at the kitchen table and decided which of their kids was least likely to get sick, since they couldn't afford to insure all of them. Of the Massachusetts plan, Stern argues, "People are working now, through a political process, particularly now that we have a new governor there, to make it better. Most states have nothing to make better. Is it better to be in Massachusetts with someone trying to make it better, or waiting for California to pass single-payer? I don't know." He adds defensively, "We are not going to let the perfect become the enemy of the good on this issue."

Within SEIU, the rumor mill hums with speculation that Andy Stern has ambitions beyond the union. Certainly, some of his rhetoric and triangulation make him sound like a politician, but Stern denies any plans to step down from SEIU or seek public office.

Labor dissidents can denounce him as a sellout, and of course some will. But they could also read Andy Stern as a sign of the times. When Stern makes compromises that cause fellow progressives and unionists to cringe, it's because he doesn't think there are other ways for the labor movement to grow. He speaks of unions "adding value" to corporate enterprises and crusades for dubious, middle-of-the-road reforms because he doesn't think there is any other language, or any other ideas, that will resonate with Washington policy-makers. An effective grassroots movement for social democracy could change that. The rumblings of discontent within SEIU -- and the growing movement for real healthcare reform in California -- may be hopeful signs. Stern is a close reader of the zeitgeist. As Rose Ann DeMoro says, "If he sees the tide is turning, he'll change."

Workers of the World Unite Against Starbucks

Last week Starbucks faced legal and political trouble from its own workers. On the third anniversary of the founding of the IWW Starbucks Union, baristas in Chicago marched into a shop and told the manager they were signing up. (Starbucks workers have chosen to organize without government-mediated elections, through an interesting model called "solidarity unionism.")

Meanwhile, baristas in Grand Rapids, Michigan announced that they were filing a legal complaint against the company for violating their organizing rights through unlawful surveillance and other questionable tactics. All over the world -- Austria, England, Spain and Australia, as well as the United States -- Starbucks workers demonstrated in front of stores to protest the company's union-busting practices.

When you pay $4 for a cup of coffee-flavored foamy milk at Starbucks, part of what you're buying is an illusion of corporate social responsibility. The store exudes a warm glow of righteousness, from the recycled paper napkins to the empathetic messages about sustainable trade and ecological practices (Our farmers are happy! Buy a better lightbulb! Have some more foamy milk!).

The workers behind the counter are hoping the public will look beyond all the greenwashing and support their campaign, which has succeeded in raising wages and improving conditions for some workers.

The baristas are asking for better wages (some make as little as $8.75 an hour even in costly Manhattan), guaranteed hours with the option to work full-time and more affordable health insurance. (Despite widely-believed corporate spin to the contrary, Starbucks insures a smaller percentage of its workforce than Wal-Mart.)

In New York, the National Labor Relations Board (that bastion of radical left-wingers) has accusedStarbucks of violating workers' freedom of association in about thirty different ways, including illegally firing, threatening and disciplining workers for supporting the union. Managers forbade workers from talking about the union -- even when off-duty -- or wearing union buttons. The trial is in June. I'll be attending, and covering it, so stay tuned.

Is Wal-Mart Big Green or Big Mean?

A laughing baby is covered in baby food. He's making a gushy mess, as babies do, but having a grand time. A magic word reassures us -- before we've had a chance to worry -- that the food itself is wholesome. That word, of course, is "organic." More surprising, to many viewers of this advertisement, will be the origin of this virtuous feast: Wal-Mart.

This summer, the mega-retailer launched a multimillion-dollar ad campaign with an irresistible promise: "Introducing Organics at the Wal-Mart price." The commercial, which cannily plays to mothers' worries about how pesticides and additives may affect their children's health, has run on network and cable TV; a print version will appear in Parenting, Real Simple, Self and Cooking Light. Already one of the nation's leading organics vendors, Wal-Mart announced this past spring its intention to enter the market far more aggressively, to double its inventory and eventually offer organics at only 10 percent above the price of conventional food.

Food bearing the government's organic label can be, for low- and middle-income shoppers, prohibitively expensive. That's why, to many observers, an "organic Wal-Mart" represents the democratization of healthier -- and better-tasting -- food. Bob Scowcroft of the Organic Farming Research Foundation argues, too, that environmentalists should cheer Wal-Mart's move, which will "turn hundreds of thousands of acres" now being farmed conventionally to organic. "Think of the tonnage of toxins and carcinogens which will disappear from the earth," he says.

Scowcroft also points to research by the Swiss government showing that organic farming can reduce global warming -- actually drawing nitrogen and carbon from the atmosphere. Like the retailer's push for fuel-efficient trucking, Wal-Mart's entry into the organic sector could turn out to be another example of how one decision by this company -- however market-driven -- might do tremendous good, simply because of its scale.

But while there are potential upsides to Wal-Mart's move, it also offers plenty of reasons to worry. To advocates of local economies, like Judy Wicks, founder of Philadelphia's White Dog Cafe and co-chair of the Sustainable Business Network of Greater Philadelphia, an organic Wal-Mart could do "more harm than good" because of the changes it will bring about in the organic food industry. For example, she cites Wal-Mart's likely impact on many small farmers. In other industries Wal-Mart's aggressive competition has proved devastating to small producers, from TV manufacturers to conventional pork farmers.

Though Wal-Mart, like Whole Foods, has agreed to source some products locally, most family-scale organic farmers will not supply big-box retailers directly. But many farmers will nonetheless struggle to meet Wal-Mart's price, in order to supply competing retailers or simply hang on to customers. "Every farmer has to compete because Wal-Mart is in every market," explains Mark Kastel, senior farm policy analyst at the Cornucopia Institute, a progressive research group that advocates for small farmers. "From an economic justice standpoint," he adds, Wal-Mart's plan to go more aggressively organic is "a disaster" because it could prove ruinous for so many family farms.

Some of the concern over small farmers may be sentimental, a remnant of our national identity as a land of Jeffersonian citizen-yeomen. And some detect, in the progressive reaction to Wal-Mart's organic ambitions, a whiff of countercultural cliqueishness. Gary Hirshberg, president of Stonyfield Farm, which supplies organic yogurt to Wal-Mart, is a former hippie who lived on an organic solar- and wind-powered farm in the 1960s and '70s. He dismisses Wal-Mart critics in the organic movement as "activists who don't want to think of organic as a segment. They think of it as a lifestyle." To Hirshberg, organic Wal-Mart is a sign of the movement's success, and those who don't like it are elitist purists, dedicated to their own marginality.

But there are unsentimental reasons to root for small farmers in this drama. They are important to a progressive vision, partly because they are more likely to be farming organic out of principle than a large corporation is and thus more inclined not to cut corners and compromise standards. People who live on their farms with their families also have a compelling incentive to treat the land better.

Regina Beidler is a Mennonite who lives with her dairy-farmer husband, Brent, and 8-year-old daughter, Erin, on 145 acres with forty cows in Randolph Center, Vermont. Because the Beidlers farm organically -- which as defined by the Department of Agriculture means no pesticides, petroleum-based fertilizers or sewage-sludge-based fertilizers -- Erin roams the farm freely (her job is to push the button on the grain elevator). "It's reassuring to know she isn't being exposed to those [toxic] substances," says her mother. "It's much more child-friendly."

Perhaps even more convincingly, as groups like the Organic Consumers Association point out, transporting food long distances is a staggering waste of energy and contributes to global warming. According to research by Brian Halweil of the Worldwatch Institute, our food typically travels 1,500 to 2,500 miles to reach our plate, 25 percent farther than in 1980. By the time we sit down to eat it, a meal from a conventional grocery store has used four to seventeen times more petroleum than a meal made from local ingredients.

While Wal-Mart officials have expressed concern about the "food miles" issue, industry observers predict that most of Wal-Mart's produce will travel significant distances -- Chile, Kenya and China are some of the likeliest low-cost sources, according to Mary Hendrickson, director of the University of Missouri's Food Circles Networking Project -- raising confusing questions about whether organic Wal-Mart will, on balance, hurt or help the planet. (Just to confuse the environmental issue still more, Bob Scowcroft points out that converting all those acres in China will clean up a lot of groundwater there, which is obviously good for the Chinese.)

Most small organic farmers interviewed for this article believed that in organics, as in many other sectors, Wal-Mart's low prices would, ultimately, mean lower standards. Stonyfield Farm's Hirshberg, who has had many discussions with Wal-Mart officials about the company's commitment to organics, says Wal-Mart does not plan to lower its price by lowering standards; rather, he says, Wal-Mart is committed to delivering the savings through efficiencies within its own system. But Wal-Mart's behavior as a major player in the organic dairy industry has already suggested otherwise. It has also provided a window on how the company will treat small organic farmers: just fine, until they can no longer provide the lowest possible price.

When Wal-Mart began selling organic milk, one of its first suppliers was Organic Valley, a cooperative of small farmers committed to organic principles. Organic Valley farmers, including Regina Beidler, were proud to be reaching Wal-Mart's customers, people like themselves who were struggling to make ends meet. But Organic Valley faced a milk shortage, so when the co-op found itself outpriced by a competitor, Horizon, which is owned by Dean Foods, the farmers decided not to engage in a price war to stay on the Wal-Mart shelf but to continue supplying the smaller food stores that had long formed the backbone of their customer base. "We didn't want to make compromises," says Organic Valley CEO and farmer George Siemon, meaning that the farmers needed to get a fair price while maintaining their product's integrity.

Horizon, which controls 55 percent of the organic dairy market, meets Wal-Mart's low price in part by providing appalling conditions for its cows. The Cornucopia Institute's Mark Kastel, first reached for this article as he was standing on Horizon's 4,000-cow Idaho feedlot, says the cows were "standing in 90-degree heat. No shade, no water. These animals are living very short lives." (To be considered "organic," animals -- whether they are raised for meat, milk or eggs -- must be given some access to the outdoors. It is an irony of the bureaucracy and inequity surrounding federal certification that by following the letter if not the spirit of such regulations -- that is, for some of their lives Horizon's cows are outside, even if they have no room to move around -- Horizon can call its milk organic, while many small farmers, whose cows roam freely and munch on grass, cannot; in many cases the farmers can't afford the expense of the certification process, or are put off by the paperwork.)

The Organic Consumers Association has urged shoppers to boycott Horizon. As savvy consumers learn that sometimes the organic label tells an incomplete story, Organic Valley stands to benefit. "Organic Valley has long been built on the idea that family farming is a better way to give care to animals and the land," Siemon says diplomatically. "Consumers have a hard time believing that large factory farms are really organic."

To be sure, some family-scale organic farmers are benefiting from Wal-Mart's entry into the industry. Horizon buys at least half its milk from hundreds of small-scale farmers, as even a dogged critic like Kastel, author of a report called "Maintaining the Integrity of Organic Milk," acknowledges. And while Organic Valley isn't supplying Wal-Mart directly anymore, some Organic Valley milk does end up, much transformed, in the Wal-Mart customer's shopping cart: Stonyfield Farm buys milk from the cooperative to make organic yogurt. Says Stonyfield's Hirshberg: "If you're serious and sincere about family farms, then your ultimate goal is to be in Wal-Mart, to be where food is sold."

Still, the Horizon/Wal-Mart alliance is potentially ominous for family-scale dairy farmers, because, as Kastel points out, "there's a shortage today, but a year from now," as producers rush to meet the demands of big retailers like Wal-Mart, "you could have a surplus." A milk surplus could erode the organic premium and drive many small organic dairy farmers into bankruptcy, just as it has wiped out many of their conventional neighbors. Organic farmers, especially in the Northeast, are already in a precarious situation because of high fuel, grain and transportation costs.

Travis Forgues, a second-generation farmer in Alburg, Vermont, the state's farthest-northwest town, milks eighty grass-fed cows. A 33-year-old father of three young children, he speaks for many small farmers when he says, "If we didn't have the organic market, my dad and I would have been out of here long ago." On the danger of a surplus fueled by demand from Wal-Mart and other big-box stores, Forgues says, "Anyone who's not worried about what's going to happen is crazy."

With Wal-Mart on the scene, the strength of alternative and local economic institutions will determine whether small farmers like Forgues survive. With 871 farmers and growing, Organic Valley, the largest organic farmers' cooperative in the country, is still going strong even without Wal-Mart's business, maintaining farmer control while still distributing on an impressive scale. (In the grocery store on my corner in New York City, which is not a natural-food store or a food co-op, Organic Valley milk is sold right next to Horizon, and that's the case in stores all over the country.)

Farmers agree that the co-op model is critical, helping them maintain some power in an increasingly concentrated market. "The farmer has to be in the driver's seat," says Forgues. Because of the organic milk shortage and the Organic Valley cooperative, he continues to get a fair price and has survived a difficult season far more easily than most of his farmer neighbors. Of Wal-Mart, he says, "We're not going to cut our price so we can get onto that shelf. We have to make sure farmers don't get removed from the process, as happened in the conventional food market."

In a nod to the savvy consumer's growing interest in nearby food, Organic Valley is in the process of regionalizing many of its operations, so that even though farmers in twenty-three states belong to the co-op, customers in New England buying Organic Valley milk will be, increasingly, buying from New England farmers. Farmers' markets, which are growing in popularity, will also be critical institutions in the organic Wal-Mart era.

Jim Goodman, a Wisconsin dairy farmer who tends 400 certified-organic acres with his brother, sells to a local cheesemaker (as well as directly to customers through mail order) but also relies on the weekly farmers' market in Madison, where he sells beef. He doesn't think Wal-Mart is going to affect his business. "People who come to the farmers' market are shopping there because they want to deal directly with the farmer," he says. "They want to meet the person who raised it, put it in their hand. When they get home they can say, 'This came from Mike, this came from Jim.' When you're sitting down to dinner that makes so much difference. I'd be surprised if they would go to Wal-Mart just because it's cheaper."

For local food to become more than a niche market and begin to transform our relationship to the environment, however, energy is going to have to be a lot more expensive. For the majority of Americans to have the incentive to buy local, the cost of food transport would have to reflect its true environmental costs. Many local food advocates speak -- half with alarm, half wishfully -- of "peak oil," the notion that we are running out of oil and will soon be forced to grow our own food and cooperate with our neighbors. That neo-primitivist scenario, if it ever comes to pass, is not going to arrive nearly quickly enough to substitute for the necessary work of persuading Americans to change our lifestyles, and advocating policies that conserve energy.

"Consumers have to be more educated," says Goodman. He thinks it's important to tell people why the prices are higher: Organic is not overpriced; rather, conventional food is cheap because its costs are passed along to the environment, small farmers and the health of those who eat it. "If people can't afford to buy organic," he says, "it's because they are not paid enough in their jobs, and don't have health insurance."

That, Goodman insists, should be part of a broader economic justice agenda: A living wage should allow a person to buy responsibly grown, healthy food for her family. "With organic food," he explains, "there's no hidden cost." It's also true that at farmers' markets and roadside stands, organic food is often cheaper than in stores, because there's no profiteering middleman.

Taking their case to the shopper, Organic Valley farmers like Travis Forgues have been traveling the country on speaking tours. The Organic Consumers Association is working to create a domestic fair-trade group, whose label would assure the consumer that food was produced in a way that was environmentally and socially responsible -- giving an edge to smaller, more conscientious producers over Dean Foods. With the goal, too, of making local organic produce affordable to the poorest Wal-Mart shoppers -- those who will probably never be able to afford a meal at the White Dog Cafe, which runs around $50 -- the OCA is also working to broaden a program making it easier for farmers' markets to accept food stamps.

Many organic farmers are social activists and idealists who care about the environment, animal rights and economic justice. But many are also entrepreneurial -- and that's how they will survive the new era of big-box organic. The challenge Wal-Mart poses, says Bob Scowcroft, is "to get consumers who discover organics at the Wal-Mart to get out of their car and to the farmers' market."

Is Wal-Mart Really Going Green?

It was easy for Wal-Mart's critics to laugh this past spring when CEO Lee Scott proudly announced that he drove a Lexus hybrid. For Scott to expect praise for his consumer choices given the abysmal record of his massive company -- which has repeatedly violated the Clean Water Act while contributing to sprawl, air pollution, and a host of other serious problems -- seemed to insult public intelligence. It also seemed a strange maneuver for a man heading a company known for shunning environmental concerns. Indeed, in Robert Greenwald's new film, Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price, one veteran activist says she has never encountered a company as unresponsive as Wal-Mart.

But since then, Scott's green inclinations seem to have grown. In late October, he unveiled plans to hold Wal-Mart's suppliers to higher environmental standards and to begin selling clothing made from organic cotton. Just four days later, in a speech to employees, he outlined his goals for being a "good steward" to the environment. Scott plans to increase fuel efficiency in the company's truck fleet -- one of the largest in the world -- by 25 percent over the next three years, and to double fuel efficiency over the next decade from 6.5 to 13 miles per gallon. He promised to cut energy use at new stores by 30 percent and reduce greenhouse-gas emissions at the more than 5,000 existing stores, warehouse clubs, and distribution centers by 20 percent over the next eight years. He also said the company would offer cheaper health insurance to its employees, and called upon the government to raise the minimum wage.

Baby Steps or a Sea Change?

How meaningful are Scott's plans? Are they simply attempts to divert attention from concerns about Wal-Mart's notoriously shoddy treatment of its workers? The mixed reaction from progressive activists reveals no easy answers.

The new proposals are, by Scott's own admission, a response to increasing public pressure on both social and environmental issues. Reactions from activists have varied, reflecting divergent analyses of the company and differing opinions of how best to approach it. Without exception, they fault the plan for vagueness, and for including no intention of public reporting. But some advocates are cautiously hopeful.

Carl Pope, executive director of the Sierra Club -- which has, as he puts it, "frequently crossed swords" with the company in community battles -- said Scott's speech was "environmentally important and substantive, but it did not address some of the environmental problems with their business model."

Despite concerns about the company's use of "cheap land" and encouragement of sprawl, some critics still see Wal-Mart's size and market power as a potential plus. "Wal-Mart ought to be using its competitive advantage to raise standards," Pope says, and others agree. "Wal-Mart is the biggest company in the world," says Gwen Ruta, director of corporate partnerships for Environmental Defense, which has been in talks with Wal-Mart about these issues. "I'd like to see them flex their purchasing muscle. If you can make a change in Wal-Mart, even if it's a small change, it's really a big change, especially if it affects the supply chain." (Wal-Mart has thousands of suppliers, and many manufacturers say its dominance is so complete that it would be impossible to stay afloat without doing business with the company.)

From the point of view of Pope, Ruta, and others, the proper response to Wal-Mart's proposals is to see that the company actually lives up to them. Some will do that by continuing to fight community battles or assisting with public education efforts, while others will work more closely with Wal-Mart, hoping to influence company officials. Says Pope, "We have to acknowledge [Scott's plan]. We have been very careful not to call it green-scamming. It's more like, when your kid is making progress going to bed, you acknowledge the progress, but you still have to make sure they get all the way to bed."

Pope is also on the board of Wal-Mart Watch, a coalition that began with seed money from the Service Employees International Union. He says he sees connections between Wal-Mart's abuse of the environment and of its workforce: both reflect the company's fanatical obsession with keeping costs low. This connection is often made by activists at the community level, where environmental groups tend to work closely with labor and other social-justice groups, but such alliances have been slower to emerge among national groups. However, Tracy Sefl of Wal-Mart Watch says the contingents have been talking to each other far more this year, as a result of national visibility and momentum on Wal-Mart-related issues.

Down With Love

Many environmental leaders acknowledge that they have put less pressure on the company than social-justice activists have. And perhaps the most intriguing fallout from Scott's announcement is its dismissal by labor advocates, who have managed to keep Wal-Mart's offenses against workers in the news on an almost-daily basis. Rather than claiming credit for the initiatives and praising Wal-Mart for taking action on a matter of pressing public interest, Chris Kofinis of Wake Up Wal-Mart -- a project of the United Food and Commercial Workers -- calls the new plan a "publicity stunt."

To Sefl, dismissing the environmental overtures is politically "short-sighted. Just to say it is bad, bad, without consulting our environmental friends would make us sound like blowhards."

Plenty of environmentalists also consider Scott's announcement a sham, however, and find it difficult to imagine a truly green Wal-Mart. Stacy Mitchell, a senior researcher at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance who is working on a book on big-box stores, views Wal-Mart's size not as an opportunity, but as a critical part of the problem. To her, the company's new initiatives "miss the bigger picture. What is truly sustainable is local sourcing. Of course we will always have trade, but sourcing locally cuts down dramatically on fuel and energy use." She says local businesses are more politically accountable to communities and more invested in them; when you live and work among people, you may be less likely to dump toxins in their water.

And for Wal-Mart to promise more fuel efficiency while it continues to expand its operations, Mitchell says, "is like the person who buys a car that is 25 percent more fuel efficient, then drives it twice as much, and expects us to applaud." Mitchell thinks environmentalists should oppose Wal-Mart's growth. After all, the more stores Wal-Mart builds, "the more we have to drive -- that is the biggest piece of the company's environmental impact," she says. "The best thing for the environment would be if Wal-Mart stopped building stores." The very week of Scott's speech on the environment, the company announced plans to add more than 60 million square feet of retail space.

Heather Rogers, author of Gone Tomorrow: The Hidden Life of Garbage, is equally skeptical of Scott's newfound environmentalism. "It is a distraction, because the real environmental impact comes from what Wal-Mart sells: cheap commodities that are designed to wear out quickly," she says.

Indeed, Bureau of Labor Statistics economist Patrick Jackman, who has extensively studied Wal-Mart's prices, believes much of the savings consumers derive by shopping there may be offset by the poor quality of the goods. This disposability, Rogers points out, has a "double impact" on the environment: more raw materials must be extracted to replace the defunct products, while at the same time the discarded items are sent to polluting landfills.

Environmentalists' disagreements on Wal-Mart offer a window on progressive confusion about the retailer: Is Wal-Mart a purely rotten model, or merely missing opportunities to be a force for positive change? Asked about the larger concerns that Mitchell and Rogers raise -- worries that can't be easily allayed by fuel-efficient trucks or organic cotton T-shirts -- Ruta is philosophical. "The fact is, Wal-Mart exists," she says. "We might as well try and make it better."

On the Wal-Mart Money Trail

The Ten Worst Jobs in America

For a rich country, the United States has a lot of abysmal jobs, so any list of this kind will necessarily omit some true horrors. Still, there's no doubt these are 10 of the very worst (in no particular order).

Poultry processor These folks quit their jobs five times as often as other workers, and it's not hard to see why. This job boasts an impressive "ick" factor -- you can imagine how gross these plants smell. The workers -- two-thirds of whom are black women -- are surrounded all day by gizzards and offal. The pay is lower than any other job in the manufacturing industry, except apparel. It would be tough to decide which was the worst task in a poultry plant -- would you rather be crapped on and scratched by live birds; slaughter and behead them; or pull their guts out? The work is repetitive, with relentless pressure for profit-maximizing efficiency. Bathroom breaks are discouraged and often punished. Because of the brutal pace and casual safety training (portrayed in a Pulitzer Prize-winning Wall Street Journal investigation of the industry) one in four poultry workers are injured or made ill by their jobs. Cuts from the equipment -- knives and scissors -- are common, as is carpal tunnel syndrome. Many poultry plant workers live in trailers on the premises, paying their rent through pay deductions. Alarmingly, this has been one of the fastest growing factory jobs in recent years.

Sewing machine operator There's no offal on the factory floor, but the upsides to this job end there. Garment workers' wages are even lower than those of poultry workers. They also face a constant threat of unemployment; because of unregulated overseas competition, apparel is expected to lose 245,000 jobs by 2012, probably more than any other industry. Sewing areas are the noisiest parts of the factory, and operators must sit for long periods leaning over machines and work under intense time pressure; repetitive stress injury is common. Their average wage is about $7.72 an hour; of course, in illegal "underground" shops, even lower -- or unpaid -- wages are common. Only 8 percent of U.S. garment workers are covered by a union contract; even those who are union members have found it almost impossible to bargain for better wages and conditions in recent years, because of global economic pressures. Most people doing this job are women, and in large cities like New York and Los Angeles, most are immigrants. There are about 140,000 sewing machine operators in the U.S. garment industry today.

Farm laborer Waking up early and planting things -- it sounds like the bucolic, Jeffersonian dream, but more often than not, it's a nightmare. Farm workers are among the poorest in the United States; not only are their wages low, they must also endure the instability of seasonal work, and usually receive no benefits. They're excluded from many of the legal rights and protections other workers enjoy: farm employers are not obligated to pay overtime, and many don't even have to pay minimum wage. Some small farmers are even exempt from many occupational health and safety laws, and in any case, throughout the industry, enforcement of such laws is weak. Hundreds of farm workers are killed on the job every year, and tens of thousands injured. They must work around toxic pesticides, with horrifying long-term effects on their health: poisoning, cancer, and, when pregnant women are exposed, birth defects. In a given week, around 793,000 people rely on hired farm work as their primary source of income.

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The Other Side of the Big Easy

Much of the world -- including white America -- has been shocked by the devastation in New Orleans, and by the ongoing failures it has exposed at every possible level of government. Even normally unflappable TV news anchors and politicians have been moved to outrage, asking why those left behind were mostly black, poor, disabled, elderly.

Veterans of the environmental-justice movement, especially those working in New Orleans, are just as appalled -- but they are less surprised. Indeed, they're finding their most chilling fears confirmed.

For years, these advocates have been telling anyone who'd listen that blacks in New Orleans were far more affected by environmental problems than the white folks in, say, the Garden District -- and would be far more vulnerable in a disaster. They've long realized a truth that the response to Hurricane Katrina seems to be proving: people in power viewed the city's poorest residents as, says Robert Bullard, "expendable in some sense."

Bullard, director of the Environmental Justice Resource Center at Clark Atlanta University and author of the forthcoming The Quest for Environmental Justice, has been leading a research project on official responses to environmental disasters with Beverly Wright, executive director of the Deep South Center for Environmental Justice. Wright and Bullard say blacks and other people of color are all too often overlooked in such crises.

For instance, last January, in Graniteville, S.C., a train crash released deadly chlorine gas, forcing the evacuation of some 5,500 people; black residents contended that white people were evacuated immediately, while a black neighborhood was not evacuated until hours later.

There are hundreds of black farmers, their crops and barns destroyed by tornadoes, who have filed lawsuits against the U.S. Department of Agriculture for failing to grant the relief they say is provided to white farmers; in 1999, the government settled a $2 billion class-action suit addressing claims of discrimination. And after Hurricane Hugo devastated South Carolina in 1989, black victims received less emergency shelter and food assistance than whites in similar situations.

Katrina offered another painfully vivid illustration of the way inequities can pervade government planning for an emergency. Bullard explains that the evacuation strategy for a Gulf Coast hurricane, a long-anticipated event, "did not plan for people who did not have lots of money, do not own cars, the poor, sick, elderly." (New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin, who is black, was justifiably -- in his own words -- "pissed" at the slow federal response to Katrina, but his race hasn't spared him from criticism over his own failure to plan for his city's least fortunate citizens.)

This critical weakness had been exposed as recently as last year. During Hurricane Ivan, rich, primarily white people fled New Orleans in their SUVs, while the city's poorest and darkest residents stayed behind. That time, the area was spared as Ivan drifted elsewhere, but many warned that the next storm might not be so merciful.

Louisiana, long a nationally recognized poster child for environmental injustice, has seen such inequities for decades. The 85-mile stretch of the Mississippi River between Baton Rouge and New Orleans is home to more than 140 oil refineries and chemical plants, accounting for one-fourth of the nation's petrochemical production.

Known as Cancer Alley because of the industry's devastating health effects, the area has been a hub of environmental-justice organizing since the 1980s. Oil and chemical companies in Louisiana have long spewed pollutants in local communities, with little interference from any government agency. That's what helped to create the toxic broth that now fills New Orleans' streets, which is going to make cleanup difficult and, according to The New Orleans Times-Picayune, may make much of the city uninhabitable for years. Many houses, now stewing in these poisons, will have to be bulldozed even if their foundations are solid, says Wright.

The no-win situation New Orleans residents found themselves in last week has many antecedents. Wright points to a community in the city that was sited on top of the Agriculture Street Landfill, a Superfund site that closed in the 1960s. When the hurricane hit, the neighborhood's mostly African-American residents were awaiting a judge's decision on a request for relocation, a battle they'd been waging for over a decade.

A 1999 state report found that residents were exposed to pesticides, metals, and numerous other toxic chemicals; the neighborhood's breast cancer rate is the highest in the state. "It is ironic that the hurricane has given them what they have been asking for all these years," Wright says.

For anything hopeful to emerge from the wreckage, New Orleans and Louisiana -- as well as the rest of the country -- will need representative and functional government, committed to a social safety net and environmental health. "When you ask, where is the history of Louisiana defending itself and its people, it's just not there," says Monique Harden, codirector of Advocates for Environmental Human Rights, which was based in New Orleans until the hurricane struck. "What Katrina has exposed is decades of benign neglect and racism, which you can't prettify with a crawfish étouffé. This is the other side of New Orleans."

Observers predict that economic issues will profoundly affect this legendary city's future, just as they shaped its past. The rebuilding and cleanup will create jobs, and hold the potential for a massive New Deal-style public-works program, advocates agree.

It will be critical to make sure that the city's poor -- those who want to come back -- get the jobs, says Daryl Malek-Wiley, an environmental-justice organizer with the Sierra Club who took refuge from the hurricane in Houston, but plans to return to the city. "We shouldn't allow Halliburton" -- which already has a $17 million contract to rebuild naval facilities in Mississippi and Louisiana, and is likely to get far more -- "to get millions while people who lived there get nothing."

Keeping the vultures in check won't be easy, activists acknowledge. "The economic structure of the city is controlled by old-line wealthy families and corporations," says Wright, also a New Orleans resident. She points out that because the well-heeled live on higher ground, they will have a much easier time moving back than residents of low-lying, predominantly black communities.

"This may sound cold, but I think the [city's real-estate developers] are doing a break dance right now," Wright says. "They are really happy to have us gone."

Wright and others fear that the city could be rebuilt as a massive gentrification project, one with no room for Katrina's displaced. Of course, that would present a problem for the elites: in a New Orleans "cleansed" of poor people and blacks, where would all the petrochemical waste be dumped? Who would live on top of the leaky, carcinogenic landfills? And who would bear the brunt of the next Katrina?


It may surprise some people to hear that the Bush administration's EPA just drafted a strategic plan on environmental justice. Insidiously, and perhaps less surprisingly, advocates say, the move threatens to redefine that term into irrelevance.

The agency's new plan defines environmental justice as "the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, national origin, or income, with respect to development, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations, and policies."

That sounds uncontroversial enough on the surface, but the trouble lies in the word regardless. The field of environmental justice is based on the idea that some people -- specifically, racial minorities and the poor -- are more affected by environmental problems than others. It's an idea based on substantial evidence, which has been accumulating for decades.

For example, in the early 1980s, a landmark U.S. General Accounting Office study found that three out of four landfills in the Southeast were located in communities of color. A 1992 National Law Journal study found that Superfund offenders paid 54 percent lower fines in communities of color than in white communities. And recent studies have found that Latinos and blacks are much more likely to develop -- and die of -- diseases related to pollution, like asthma.

As Diane Takvorian, executive director of the Environmental Health Coalition, a 25-year-old group focusing on border communities in San Diego and Tijuana, explains, "We have always worked in low-income communities of color, because that's where the pollution is the worst." These areas are often ignored by local and state environmental authorities, she says, and activists in her group "have had to take enforcers by the hand into their communities" because the officials were afraid to go into "bad" neighborhoods.

In 1994, after years of pressure from the environmental-justice movement, then-President Clinton issued an executive order decreeing that all relevant federal agencies must work to identify and address "disproportionately high and adverse human health or environmental effects of its programs, policies, and activities on minority populations and low-income populations in the United States." The EPA's new draft plan, by contrast, removes race and income from special consideration.

In the years since Clinton's executive order, says Takvorian, things have improved, "especially at the regional level. The EPA has had a greater sensitivity, and taken approaches more appropriate to our communities." She is not optimistic about the implications of the new plan: "We assume that sensitivity, and the resources now applied to environmental justice, will disappear."

Robert Bullard of the Environmental Justice Resource Center at Clark Atlanta University has called the EPA's draft "a giant step backwards." Other advocates agree. "We think this is the wrong direction for the EPA to go," says Will Rostov, staff attorney for Communities for a Better Environment, a California-based environmental-justice group. "Essentially what they're trying to do is not have an environmental-justice program." Eliminating considerations of race and income, he says, "makes the program meaningless."

This reaction goes beyond the world of environmental-justice activists. Last week, more than 70 legislators, including Sens. John Kerry (D-Mass.), Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.), and Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.), signed a letter saying that the EPA's draft plan "fails to address the real environmental-justice problems facing our nation's most polluted communities" and lambasting the dismissal of race as "a significant departure from existing environmental-justice policies." In their letter, the legislators also say the draft violates Clinton's 1994 executive order.

EPA spokesperson Stacie Keller denies that. She emailed Grist a statement promising that the agency "has a continuing commitment to environmental justice and the full implementation of the executive order." Asked why consideration of race appeared to have been excised from the agency's definition of environmental justice, Keller said she would check with the program office, but did not respond before deadline.

In addition to being unhappy with the plan itself, environmental-justice activists are troubled by the process surrounding it. The EPA says it welcomes outside comments on the draft, but Rostov criticizes the agency for permitting a "very short time frame" for such feedback. "One of the principles of environmental justice is getting the public to participate," he says, "and they allowed less than 30 days to have people comment, in the summer." Although the original public-input period ended July 16, EPA announced on July 28 that it would hear comments until August 15. The agency expects to issue a final plan by September 2006.

It's not as if there is any doubt that race and income affect a person's likelihood of living in a polluted neighborhood, or suffering from the effects of inadequate environmental policies, observers say. "There is a disparate impact," says Takvorian. "There are 200-plus studies that demonstrate that. So the question isn't, 'Is this true?' We know it's true. The question is, 'What are we going to do about it?'"

Rep. Alcee Hastings (D-Fla.), one of the legislators who signed the letter criticizing the EPA draft, puts it even more bluntly. "It isn't that EPA doesn't know what problems exist," he said. "It's their willingness to do anything about it. Shame on them."

Wal-Mart Has No Plan B

The political battle over the "morning after pill" is raging, with proposed legislation in 15 states that would protect a pharmacist's right to refuse to fill prescriptionS on "moral" grounds.

Wal-Mart has already laid down its own law. America's largest retailer and one of its largest pharmacies doesn't stock emergency contraception at all.

Emergency contraception, known as Plan B, is 89 percent effective in preventing pregnancy if taken within 72 hours of intercourse, according to its manufacturer, the Women's Capital Corporation, which last year was acquired by Barr Pharmaceuticals, Inc., Woodcliff Lake, N.J. It is even more effective if taken within 24 hours of unprotected intercourse.

"For many rural women, Wal-Mart is their only pharmacy," says Ted Miller, a spokesperson for NARAL Pro-Choice America. "That's what makes Wal-Mart's refusal to carry emergency contraception so disconcerting."

While some large chain pharmacies, such as Rite-Aid and Winn-Dixie, allow individual pharmacists to refuse to fill prescriptions, Wal-Mart, based in Bentonville, Ark., is the only one to bar Plan B. Wal-Mart refers every customer seeking emergency contraception to another pharmacy.

But as the retailing behemoth pushes into urban and coastal markets--retail analysts say it has virtually saturated rural and small-town America--its position on Plan B may become increasingly awkward as pro-choice groups continue to protest stores that hinder access to emergency contraception.

Political battles over proposed Wal-Mart stores in New York City, Los Angeles and Chicago have demonstrated that what's acceptable in Arkansas isn't necessarily embraced everywhere. While the objections focused on the retailer's low wages, hostility to unions and damage to small businesses, the discount giant's antagonists also pointed to its stance on Plan B as an issue.

"The company's indifference to their workers is increasingly well-documented," says Tracy Sefl of Wal-Mart Watch, a Washington, D.C., group. "But this indifference to women's health adds insult to injury."

Eager to Expand

Wal-Mart officials say they are eager to expand far beyond Wal-Mart's traditional rural base and they are not backing down from these fights.

Pro-choice groups, meanwhile, are pressing the Plan B-access issue.

Washington, D.C.-based NARAL and Planned Parenthood Federation of America are targeting Wal-Mart and other major pharmacy chains that aren't doing enough to ensure Plan B access.

Planned Parenthood is conducting a "Fill My Pills" letter writing and picketing campaign designed to pressure companies and spread the word about their policies.

In June NARAL celebrated the 40th anniversary of Griswold v. Connecticut--the Supreme Court decision that barred states from making contraconception illegal--picketed stores in 45 states and those protests will be ongoing, says NARAL's Miller.

Lawmakers have also entered the fray. This spring, responding to Wal-Mart's refusal, as well as that of individual pharmacists, congressional representatives Carolyn Maloney (D-NY), Debbie Wasserman-Schultz (D-FL), Christopher Shays (R-CT) and Senator Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ) introduced the Access to Legal Pharmaceuticals Act, requiring pharmacies to fill prescriptions for all forms of legal birth control, including emergency contraception.

Some pharmacists--as well as a small but influential pressure group called Pharmacists for Life--object to Plan B on moral grounds, saying that it is an abortifacient, or pill that terminates a pregnancy. The drug's manufacturer says Plan B prevents implantation and, in some cases, ovulation and that it cannot end a pregnancy.

Cultural Tightrope

The Plan B controversy comes at a time when 44-year-old Wal-Mart which has topped the Fortune 500, the definitive list of the world's largest companies, four years in a row, is trying to walk a wobbly cultural tightrope.

The company's success has been achieved in rural areas by appealing to low-income, often very religious customers. This base has made it an easy target for far-right pressure groups, with Wal-Mart often giving in to their demands.

Raunchy men's magazines such as Maxim, for instance, were banished from Wal-Mart's racks after years of pressure from groups like the Family Research Council, based in Washington, D.C., and the Timothy Group, an organization of evangelical mutual fund investors based in Grand Rapids, Mich.

In many other ways, Wal-Mart lets evangelical Christians know this is a store for them. One example: When the latest installment in Tim LaHaye's apocalyptic "Left Behind" series was published, the retailer gave away the first chapter for free.

Top-selling books that you won't find in Wal-Mart stores include "America: The Book," by The Daily Show cast which Wal-Mart dropped because of a graphic rendering of naked Supreme Court justices and George Carlin's "When Will Jesus Bring the Pork Chops?"

Urban, Coastal Territory

But to expand into urban and coastal areas, Wal-Mart seems to know that it should avoid being seen as simply a store for the religious right.

The company's policy on sexually explicit women's magazines like Cosmopolitan reflects that effort. Managers appeased right-wing pressure groups, as well as people who enjoy the magazines, by inventing a new kind of rack, which covers up the offending cover headlines, while revealing the name of the magazine to potential readers. Some books forbidden in the stores--Carlin's, for example--are sold on the company's Web site.

Wal-Mart's official statement about its decision not to sell Plan B says it is not a moral stance but simply a business decision, a reflection of customer demand. Wal-Mart spokespeople reiterate this message every time they are asked about emergency contraception.

By framing its refusal to sell Plan B as a purely economic, Wal-Mart may avoid the appearance of being influenced by religious extremists at the expense of its other customers.

But some Plan B advocates think that as the company probes new territory its policy on emergency contraception could give in to new market pressures.

"Perhaps as Wal-Mart attempts to reach out to new consumers," says Tracy Sefl of Wal-Mart Watch, "they will reconsider this 'business decision' of actually denying consumers a safe and legal means to prevent unintended pregnancies."

Wal-Mart Wiggles Around Worker Health

Wal-Mart is famous for trying to circumvent local zoning regulations, but in Dunkirk, Maryland, the retailer got particularly creative. The small hamlet had a rule against stores larger than 75,000 feet--so the company proposed to build two Wal-Mart stores side by side. Fortunately, this bit of Amelia Bedelia literalism was emphatically rejected by a community outcry, and Wal-Mart backed down last week.

Meanwhile, also in Maryland, small-time whore Governor Ehrlich has, as expected, vetoed a bill to force Wal-Mart to provide decent health insurance to workers. Wake Up Wal-Mart has a letter you can send him, politely letting him know you think he is a putz (sorry, tell him you're disappointed). More importantly, since Democrats are threatening to override the veto, if you live in Maryland: call, write or visit your state representatives and make sure they do the right thing!

More and more states are considering similar legislation, thanks to a growing and coordinated national movement. A pending Pennsylvania bill would require firms with 50 or more workers to provide data on how many workers depend on public assistance for health care. Other states and localities debating Wal-Mart-inspired measures similar to Maryland's--requiring large companies to insure workers or contribute to Medicaid-- include New Jersey, Georgia, New York City, California, Montana and Connecticut. (To keep abreast of these developments and take action, sign up for updates at

If Wal-Mart find these bills irksome, and still doesn't want to provide decent health insurance for its workers, the company should lobby for national health insurance. That's unlikely, of course, but let's hope the political battle over Wal-Mart's benefits at least convinces Americans that our health is too important to be left to the whim of greedy employers.

Race to the Bottom

"Wal-Mart is working for everyone," read the newspaper ad, which ran in January in more than 100 newspapers nationwide, including the Wall Street Journal and The New York Times. "Some of our critics are working only for themselves." The same day, the company launched, a web site to counter criticism of the kind you may have read in this magazine. Along with some misleading information intended to make Wal-Mart's wages and benefits sound much better than they are, the new campaign materials feature many smiling African-American faces; the web site explains, accurately, that Wal-Mart is a "leading employer" of Hispanics and African Americans.

As Jesse Jackson and other black leaders have pointed out in response to this boast, the slave plantation was once a "leading employer" of African Americans as well. But this ad campaign was only the latest salvo in Wal-Mart's fervent battle for the goodwill of black America, inspired by the difficulties the company is having as it tries to move into urban areas.

Wal-Mart spent more than $1 million on a PR campaign backing a voter referendum to build a Supercenter in Inglewood, Calif., where the majority of voters are people of color, and was decisively defeated last year. The company faces continued resistance in Chicago as well, where it has been trying to open stores in black neighborhoods. A Wal-Mart on that city's West Side is scheduled to open by next February – to the frustration of those who opposed it – while plans for a South Side store have been scuttled. Controversy continues to rage about a Wal-Mart project in New Orleans, and in late February plans for a New York City Wal-Mart were scrapped in the wake of protests by labor, small business and neighborhood groups. Much of the opposition to the retailer has been led by activists of color. And, of course, since many people of color are poor, Wal-Mart depends on them as shoppers and as workers. It's no surprise, then, that the company would be eager to appeal to racial minorities.

If you own a TV, you've probably seen what many of Wal-Mart's critics call its "happy black people" ad, which has been airing since 2003, when the Inglewood fight heated up. Filmed at a Wal-Mart store in Crenshaw, a Los Angeles neighborhood, the ad features smiling African Americans giving glowing testimony to what Wal-Mart has done for the "community." ("Community" in Wal-Mart World often seems to mean "black" – on the web site, for instance, the word is illustrated not by a group of people, as it's commonly understood to mean, but by one exuberant, young woman of color, a beneficiary of a Wal-Mart scholarship.) In another TV spot, a black woman who works for Wal-Mart raves about the "opportunities" she's found working with the company. As the writer Earl Ofari Hutchinson has observed, the fact that black women are absent from most advertising imagery potentially makes Wal-Mart's campaign that much more powerful. The company also takes out ads in black newspapers, especially in cities where it faces political opposition, and radio spots during Sunday-morning gospel hour. And Wal-Mart celebrates Black History Month, distributing free booklets to consumers with inspirational sayings from accomplished African Americans.

Much like that of the Bush administration, Wal-Mart's image-making strategy includes not only advertising but paying for positive media coverage from black journalists. This year the company will begin awarding scholarships to minority journalism students at Howard, Columbia and elsewhere – a worthy use of Wal-Mart's funds, given that people of color are under-represented in this profession, but a rather transparent move to buy off potential critics. (In an unusual twist, the recipients will attend Wal-Mart's annual shareholders' meeting, a massive pep rally whose primary purpose is to immerse attendees in the company culture.) The company knows what favors its money can buy: Wal-Mart underwrites Tavis Smiley's popular television talk show in Los Angeles, and Smiley returned the favor last year when, during the heated battle in Inglewood, he invited Wal-Mart CEO Lee Scott on the air for a fawning interview, taking no calls.

Wal-Mart even gives money to civil rights organizations fighting racism – groups like La Raza, the Mexican American Legal Defense Fund, the Urban League, the United Negro College Fund and the NAACP. As with the journalism scholarships, this isn't all bad: far better that Wal-Mart's money be used to fight for racial equality than to elect Republicans or simply further enrich its own CEO, who at nearly $23 million a year makes well over 1,000 times as much as the average Wal-Mart worker. Unfortunately, however, taking money from Wal-Mart may sometimes compromise organizations politically. In Chicago, the NAACP chapter supported Wal-Mart in the political battle over the South Side store; likewise, in a recent battle over Wal-Mart in suburban Atlanta, Wal-Mart found the NAACP on its side.

Indeed, the company has become a skillful grassroots player. In both Inglewood and Chicago, Wal-Mart gave money to black churches, community groups and politicians. Wal-Mart courted Emma Mitts, an African-American alderwoman representing Chicago's West Side, and found her easily seduced. Mitts became a strident advocate for the retailer. Like many other organizations and individuals, she wasn't much of an expense; according to campaign disclosure documents filed with the State of Illinois, Wal-Mart rewarded her efforts last November with $5,000. (Mitts did not return calls for this article.)

Many black community activists were appalled that black leaders were so easily bought off. "I was ashamed to be black!" says Elce Redmond of the South Austin Coalition, a Chicago neighborhood organization, describing how the clergy and elites rolled over. "A lot of people have no principles. They will wear the dashiki, but always take the green money from a multinational corporation." Wal-Mart was deliberate, Redmond observes: "In almost twenty years of organizing, I have never seen anything so divisive. If you're going to take their money, take it, but don't pretend Wal-Mart is good for the community." He's not posturing: Redmond's South Austin Coalition received a check from Wal-Mart for a youth center, cashed it and continued to work politically to oppose the retailer.

But the organizing Wal-Mart representatives did, and the arguments they made, may have been just as important as any cash they doled out. They talked to ministers and community groups about the jobs the company was going to bring, and the low prices. "It was just smart," says Renaye Manley, the national field representative in the AFL-CIO's Midwest office, which is based in Chicago. "And it made our job that much harder." Manley, who is black and from Chicago's South Side, thinks Wal-Mart's outreach was more important than its money and that most community leaders were not bought off but genuinely convinced: "People just wanted to see jobs. These folks have a vision for their communities." James Thindwa, a Zimbabwean who heads Chicago's Jobs With Justice, says, "A lot of good, decent people bought the argument that any job is better than none." Glen Ford and Peter Gamble, writing for The Black Commentator, had a harsher take on this "slavish" acceptance of anything corporate America has on offer, chastising Chicago's black politicians for failing "to address [b]lack community development as an issue of democracy."

Most destructively, Thindwa says – and other Chicago activists agree – "Wal-Mart played the race card." The company told the city's black leaders that the unions fighting the retailer were racist, effectively exploiting existing racial tensions in the city. As elsewhere, the building trades unions in Chicago have historically discriminated against blacks. But it is service unions like the Service Employees International that are speaking out the most against Wal-Mart, and in cities, their membership is mostly people of color. "[Wal-Mart] knew what buttons to push," Redmond acknowledges, but he's outraged that so many black leaders bought the simplistic line that all unions are racist. "I've never seen so much ignorance. They had no sense at all of the history of African Americans in unions. A. Philip Randolph, ever heard of him? So they're going to side with the corporate enslaver, like, 'Wal-Mart will save us Negroes!'"

Thindwa says, "Wal-Mart was able to paint this as white unions protecting their turf, instead of as a broad-based community issue." Worse, activists now agree, the anti-Wal-Mart coalition failed to respond effectively to the company's race-baiting. Dorian Warren, an African-American community activist and member of the Chicago Workers' Rights Board, says, "The media framed it as 'white labor versus the black community.' We were not able to change the frame."

There are clearly profound racial tensions in the labor movement, and as Wal-Mart continues to move into cities it is likely to continue to exploit these tensions. Warren, a public policy scholar at the University of Chicago, says, "I've been at a loss to figure out why the labor movement can't have an honest conversation about race." Contributing to the problem, black-led labor activism has declined in recent decades, and many mainstream unions aren't training black leaders (which is closely related to their failure to develop leaders from the rank and file of any race). There's a sense – in these battles over Wal-Mart, as in many other situations – that labor uses communities of color when it's convenient but drops them when a particular campaign is over. That's easily exploited since, as Warren puts it, "there's just enough truth to it."

Of course, there's still plenty of skepticism among African Americans about Wal-Mart.

Indeed, some black clergy were leaders in the fight against Wal-Mart in Chicago. Community opposition probably did contribute to the retailer's defeat on the South Side and may help the coalition's attempts to pass an ordinance requiring Wal-Mart to pay a living wage to workers on the West Side. In Inglewood, the fight against Wal-Mart was led by black and Latino church and community activists, and very few leaders were bought off. Blacks there did not buy the line that Wal-Mart was anti-racist and the unions – therefore, all of Wal-Mart's opponents – were racist. That's partly because in Inglewood relations between the United Food and Commercial Workers and the community groups were much better. Whereas in Chicago the union often insisted on having its white and male leadership speak at public events, in Inglewood black women who lived in the town and worked in supermarkets were prominent faces in Wal-Mart's public opposition; they knocked on doors and talked to their fellow citizens about why their unionized grocery job was so important to them and their families, and why Wal-Mart was such a threat.

Madeline Janis-Aparicio of the Coalition for a Better Inglewood says about her campaign's success: "We were also lucky – Wal-Mart did something really stupid." In trying to pass an ordinance exempting itself from the town's laws, the company violated the largely black community's most basic requirement: respect. "We used that," says Janis-Aparicio, who credits that theme with winning over the church leadership and many Inglewood voters. After one large, mainstream black church joined the anti-Wal-Mart fight, the rest followed, not just lending passive endorsement but enthusiastically rallying their forces. Another helpful issue was crime – Wal-Mart is the nation's leading purveyor of guns. To rural white communities, that's often a political asset, but to urban black voters it's a harsh liability. In the last few days of the Inglewood campaign, the anti-Wal-Mart coalition hung a flier in the shape of an M-16 rifle on everybody's door. "Some on our side felt it was a scare tactic," Janis-Aparicio admits, but, she adds with justified pride, "it had a powerful impact."

Even in Chicago, Wal-Mart's own actions may end up helping its opponents. Elce Redmond says, "A lot of people who supported Wal-Mart at first are now saying, 'Elce, you were right.' Wal-Mart made a lot of promises, and hasn't delivered." Politicians and community leaders are now finding that since Wal-Mart secured permission to open the West Side store, its officials aren't returning their calls too readily. Rather than agreeing to pay workers decently, the company sent 300 holiday turkeys for the community's needy. That struck many people as a shallow response to concerns about the store's economic impact. "People are beginning to ask questions," says Redmond. "Why can't Wal-Mart pay a living wage? Why can't its workers have a union if they want one? Why not?"

Down and Out in Discount America

This article is adapted from Liza Featherstone's 'Selling Women Short: The Landmark Battle for Workers' Rights at Wal-Mart' (Basic).

On the day after Thanksgiving, the biggest shopping day of the year, Wal-Mart's many progressive critics – not to mention its business competitors – finally enjoyed a bit of schadenfreude when the retailer had to admit to "disappointing" sales. The problem was quickly revealed: Wal-Mart hadn't been discounting aggressively enough. Without low prices, Wal-Mart just isn't Wal-Mart.

That's not a mistake the big-box behemoth is likely to make again. Wal-Mart knows its customers, and it knows how badly they need the discounts. Like Wal-Mart's workers, its customers are overwhelmingly female, and struggling to make ends meet. Betty Dukes, the lead plaintiff in Dukes v. Wal-Mart, the landmark sex-discrimination case against the company, points out that Wal-Mart takes out ads in her local paper the same day the community's poorest citizens collect their welfare checks. "They are promoting themselves to low-income people," she says. "That's who they lure. They don't lure the rich.... They understand the economy of America. They know the haves and have-nots. They don't put Wal-Mart in Piedmonts. They don't put Wal-Mart in those high-end parts of the community. They plant themselves right in the middle of Poorville."

Betty Dukes is right. A 2000 study by Andrew Franklin, then an economist at the University of Connecticut, showed that Wal-Mart operated primarily in poor and working-class communities, finding, in the bone-dry language of his discipline, "a significant negative relationship between median household income and Wal-Mart's presence in the market." Although fancy retailers noted with chagrin during the 2001 recession that absolutely everybody shops at Wal-Mart – "Even people with $100,000 incomes now shop at Wal-Mart," a PR flack for one upscale mall fumed – the Bloomingdale's set is not the discounter's primary market, and probably never will be. Only 6 percent of Wal-Mart shoppers have annual family incomes of more than $100,000. A 2003 study found that 23 percent of Wal-Mart Supercenter customers live on incomes of less than $25,000 a year. More than 20 percent of Wal-Mart shoppers have no bank account, long considered a sign of dire poverty. And while almost half of Wal-Mart Supercenter customers are blue-collar workers and their families, 20 percent are unemployed or elderly.

Al Zack, who until his retirement in 2004 was the United Food and Commercial Workers' vice president for strategic programs, observes that appealing to the poor was "Sam Walton's real genius. He figured out how to make money off of poverty. He located his first stores in poor rural areas and discovered a real market. The only problem with the business model is that it really needs to create more poverty to grow." That problem is cleverly solved by creating more bad jobs worldwide. In a chilling reversal of Henry Ford's strategy, which was to pay his workers amply so they could buy Ford cars, Wal-Mart's stingy compensation policies – workers make, on average, just over $8 an hour, and if they want health insurance, they must pay more than a third of the premium – contribute to an economy in which, increasingly, workers can only afford to shop at Wal-Mart.

To make this model work, Wal-Mart must keep labor costs down. It does this by making corporate crime an integral part of its business strategy. Wal-Mart routinely violates laws protecting workers' organizing rights (workers have even been fired for union activity). It is a repeat offender on overtime laws; in more than thirty states, workers have brought wage-and-hour class-action suits against the retailer. In some cases, workers say, managers encouraged them to clock out and keep working; in others, managers locked the doors and would not let employees go home at the end of their shifts. And it's often women who suffer most from Wal-Mart's labor practices. Dukes v. Wal-Mart, which is the largest civil rights class-action suit in history, charges the company with systematically discriminating against women in pay and promotions.

Solidarity Across the Checkout Counter

Given the poverty they have in common, it makes sense that Wal-Mart's workers often express a strong feeling of solidarity with the shoppers. Wal-Mart workers tend to be aware that the customers' circumstances are similar to their own, and to identify with them. Some complain about rude customers, but most seem to genuinely enjoy the shoppers.

One longtime department manager in Ohio cheerfully recalls her successful job interview at Wal-Mart. Because of her weight, she told her interviewers, she'd be better able to help the customer. "I told them I wanted to work in the ladies department because I'm a heavy girl." She understands the frustrations of the large shopper, she told them: "'You know, you go into Lane Bryant and some skinny girl is trying to sell you clothes.' They laughed at that and said, 'You get a second interview!'"

One plaintiff in the Dukes lawsuit, Cleo Page, who no longer works at Wal-Mart, says she was a great customer service manager because "I knew how people feel when they shop, so I was really empathetic."

Many Wal-Mart workers say they began working at their local Wal-Mart because they shopped there. "I was practically born in Wal-Mart," says Alyssa Warrick, a former employee now attending Truman State University in Missouri. "My mom is obsessed with shopping.... I thought it would be pretty easy since I knew where most of the stuff was." Most assumed they would love working at Wal-Mart. "I always loved shopping there," enthuses Dukes plaintiff Dee Gunter. "That's why I wanted to work for 'em."

Shopping is traditionally a world of intense female communication and bonding, and women have long excelled in retail sales in part because of the identification between clerk and shopper. Page, who still shops at Wal-Mart, is now a lingerie saleswoman at Mervyn's (owned by Target). "I do enjoy retail," she says. "I like feeling needed and I like helping people, especially women."

Betty Dukes says, "I strive to give Wal-Mart customers one hundred percent of my abilities." This sentiment was repeated by numerous other Wal-Mart workers, always with heartfelt sincerity. Betty Hamilton, a 61-year-old clerk in a Las Vegas Sam's Club, won her store's customer service award last year. She is very knowledgeable about jewelry, her favorite department, and proud of it. Hamilton resents her employer – she complains about sexual harassment and discrimination, and feels she has been penalized on the job for her union sympathies – but remains deeply devoted to her customers. She enjoys imparting her knowledge to shoppers so "they can walk out of there and feel like they know something." Like Page, Hamilton feels she is helping people. "It makes me so happy when I sell something that I know is an extraordinarily good buy," she says. "I feel like I've done somebody a really good favor."

The enthusiasm of these women for their jobs, despite the workplace indignities many of them have faced, should not assure anybody that the company's abuses don't matter. In fact, it should underscore the tremendous debt Wal-Mart owes women: This company has built its vast profits not only on women's drudgery but also on their joy, creativity and genuine care for the customer.

Why Boycotts Don't Always Work

Will consumers return that solidarity and punish Wal-Mart for discriminating against women? Do customers care about workers as much as workers care about them? Some women's groups, like the National Organization for Women and Code Pink, have been hoping that they do, and have encouraged the public not to shop at Wal-Mart. While this tactic could be fruitful in some community battles, it's unlikely to catch on nationwide. A customer saves 20-25 percent by buying groceries at Wal-Mart rather than from a competitor, according to retail analysts, and poor women need those savings more than anyone.

That's why many women welcome the new Wal-Marts in their communities. The Winona (Minnesota) Post extensively covered a controversy over whether to allow a Wal-Mart Supercenter into the small town; the letters to the editor in response offer a window into the female customer's loyalty to Wal-Mart. Though the paper devoted substantial space to the sex discrimination case, the readers who most vehemently defended the retailer were female. From the nearby town of Rollingstone, Cindy Kay wrote that she needed the new Wal-Mart because the local stores didn't carry large-enough sizes. She denounced the local anti-Wal-Mart campaign as a plot by rich and thin elites: "I'm glad those people can fit into and afford such clothes. I can barely afford Shopko and Target!"

A week later, Carolyn Goree, a preschool teacher also hoping for a Winona Wal-Mart, wrote in a letter to the Post editor that when she shops at most stores, $200 fills only a bag or two, but at Wal-Mart, "I come out with a cart full top and bottom. How great that feels." Lacking a local Wal-Mart, Goree drives over the Wisconsin border to get her fix. She was incensed by an earlier article's lament that some workers make only $15,000 yearly. "Come on!" Goree objected. "Is $15,000 really that bad of a yearly income? I'm a single mom and when working out of my home, I made $12,000 tops and that was with child support. I too work, pay for a mortgage, lights, food, everything to live. Everything in life is a choice.... I am for the little man/woman – I'm one of them. So I say stand up and get a Wal-Mart."

Sara Jennings, a disabled Winona reader living on a total of $8,000, heartily concurred. After paying her rent, phone, electric and cable bills, Jennings can barely afford to treat herself to McDonald's. Of a recent trip to the LaCrosse, Wisconsin, Wal-Mart, she raved, "Oh boy, what a great treat. Lower prices and a good quality of clothes to choose from. It was like heaven for me." She, too, strongly defended the workers' $15,000 yearly income: "Boy, now that is a lot of money. I could live with that." She closed with a plea to the readers: "I'm sure you all make a lot more than I. And I'm sure I speak for a lot of seniors and very-low-income people. We need this Wal-Mart. There's nothing downtown."

From Consumers to Workers and Citizens

It is crucial that Wal-Mart's liberal and progressive critics make use of the growing public indignation at the company over sex discrimination, low pay and other workers' rights issues, but it is equally crucial to do this in ways that remind people that their power does not stop at their shopping dollars. It's admirable to drive across town and pay more for toilet paper to avoid shopping at Wal-Mart, but such a gesture is, unfortunately, not enough. As long as people identify themselves as consumers and nothing more, Wal-Mart wins.

The invention of the "consumer" identity has been an important part of a long process of eroding workers' power, and it's one reason working people now have so little power against business. According to the social historian Stuart Ewen, in the early years of mass production, the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, modernizing capitalism sought to turn people who thought of themselves primarily as "workers" into "consumers." Business elites wanted people to dream not of satisfying work and egalitarian societies – as many did at that time – but of the beautiful things they could buy with their paychecks.

Business was quite successful in this project, which influenced much early advertising and continued throughout the twentieth century. In addition to replacing the "worker," the "consumer" has also effectively displaced the citizen. That's why, when most Americans hear about the Wal-Mart's worker-rights abuses, their first reaction is to feel guilty about shopping at the store. A tiny minority will respond by shopping elsewhere – and only a handful will take any further action. A worker might call her union and organize a picket. A citizen might write to her congressman or local newspaper, or galvanize her church and knitting circle to visit local management. A consumer makes an isolated, politically slight decision: to shop or not to shop. Most of the time, Wal-Mart has her exactly where it wants her, because the intelligent choice for anyone thinking as a consumer is not to make a political statement but to seek the best bargain and the greatest convenience.

To effectively battle corporate criminals like Wal-Mart, the public must be engaged as citizens, not merely as shoppers. What kind of politics could encourage that? It's not clear that our present political parties are up to the job. Unlike so many horrible things, Wal-Mart cannot be blamed on George W. Bush. The Arkansas-based company prospered under the state's native son Bill Clinton when he was governor and President. Sam Walton and his wife, Helen, were close to the Clintons, and for several years Hillary Clinton, whose law firm represented Wal-Mart, served on the company's board of directors. Bill Clinton's "welfare reform" has provided Wal-Mart with a ready workforce of women who have no choice but to accept its poverty wages and discriminatory policies.

Still, a handful of Democratic politicians stood up to the retailer. California Assemblywoman Sally Lieber, who represents the 22nd Assembly District and is a former mayor of Mountain View, was outraged when she learned about the sex discrimination charges in Dukes v. Wal-Mart, and she smelled blood when, tipped off by dissatisfied workers, her office discovered that Wal-Mart was encouraging its workers to apply for public assistance, "in the middle of the worst state budget crisis in history!" California had a $38 billion deficit at the time, and Lieber was enraged that taxpayers would be subsidizing Wal-Mart's low wages, bringing new meaning to the term "corporate welfare."

Lieber was angry, too, that Wal-Mart's welfare dependence made it nearly impossible for responsible employers to compete with the retail giant. It was as if taxpayers were unknowingly funding a massive plunge to the bottom in wages and benefits – quite possibly their own. She held a press conference in July 2003, to expose Wal-Mart's welfare scam. The Wal-Mart documents – instructions explaining how to apply for food stamps, Medi-Cal (the state's healthcare assistance program) and other forms of welfare – were blown up on posterboard and displayed. The morning of the press conference, a Wal-Mart worker who wouldn't give her name for fear of being fired snuck into Lieber's office. "I just wanted to say, right on!" she told the assemblywoman.

Wal-Mart spokespeople have denied that the company encourages employees to collect public assistance, but the documents speak for themselves. They bear the Wal-Mart logo, and one is labeled "Wal-Mart: Instructions for Associates." Both documents instruct employees in procedures for applying to "Social Service Agencies." Most Wal-Mart workers I've interviewed had co-workers who worked full time for the company and received public assistance, and some had been in that situation themselves. Public assistance is very clearly part of the retailer's cost-cutting strategy. (It's ironic that a company so dependent on the public dole supports so many right-wing politicians who'd like to dismantle the welfare state.)

Lieber, a strong supporter of the social safety net who is now assistant speaker pro tempore of the California Assembly, last year passed a bill that would require large and mid-sized corporations that fail to provide decent, affordable health insurance to reimburse local governments for the cost of providing public assistance for those workers. When the bill passed, its opponents decided to kill it by bringing it to a statewide referendum. Wal-Mart, which just began opening Supercenters in California this year, mobilized its resources to revoke the law on election day this November, even while executives denied that any of their employees depended on public assistance.

Citizens should pressure other politicians to speak out against Wal-Mart's abuses and craft policy solutions. But the complicity of both parties in Wal-Mart's power over workers points to the need for a politics that squarely challenges corporate greed and takes the side of ordinary people. That kind of politics seems, at present, strongest at the local level.

Earlier this year, labor and community groups in Chicago prevented Wal-Mart from opening a store on the city's South Side, in part by pushing through an ordinance that would have forced the retailer to pay Chicago workers a living wage. In Hartford, Connecticut, labor and community advocates just won passage of an ordinance protecting their free speech rights on the grounds of the new Wal-Mart Supercenter, which is being built on city property. Similar battles are raging nationwide, but Wal-Mart's opponents don't usually act with as much coordination as Wal-Mart does, and they lack the retail behemoth's deep pockets.

With this in mind, SEIU president Andy Stern has recently been calling attention to the need for better coordination – and funding – of labor and community anti-Wal-Mart efforts. Stern has proposed that the AFL-CIO allocate $25 million of its royalties from purchases on its Union Plus credit card toward fighting Wal-Mart and the "Wal-Martization" of American jobs [see Featherstone, "Will Labor Take the Wal-Mart Challenge?" June 28].

Such efforts are essential not just because Wal-Mart is a grave threat to unionized workers' jobs (which it is) but because it threatens all American ideals that are at odds with profit – ideals such as justice, equality and fairness. Wal-Mart would not have so much power if we had stronger labor laws, and if we required employers to pay a living wage. The company knows that, and it hires lobbyists in Washington to vigorously fight any effort at such reforms – indeed, Wal-Mart has recently beefed up this political infrastructure substantially, and it's likely that its presence in Washington will only grow more conspicuous.

The situation won't change until a movement comes together and builds the kind of social and political power for workers and citizens that can balance that of Wal-Mart. This is not impossible: In Germany, unions are powerful enough to force Wal-Mart to play by their rules. American citizens will have to ask themselves what kind of world they want to live in. That's what prompted Gretchen Adams, a former Wal-Mart manager, to join the effort to unionize Wal-Mart. She's deeply troubled by the company's effect on the economy as a whole and the example it sets for other employers. "What about our working-class people?" she asks. "I don't want to live in a Third World country." Working people, she says, should be able to afford "a new car, a house. You shouldn't have to leave the car on the lawn because you can't afford that $45 part."

Will Labor Take the Wal-Mart Challenge?

Staying union free is a full-time commitment. Unless union prevention is a goal equal to other objectives within an organization, the goal will usually not be attained. The commitment to stay union free must exist at all levels of management -- from the Chairperson of the "Board" down to the front-line manager. Therefore, no one in management is immune to carrying his or her "own weight" in the union prevention effort. The entire management staff should fully comprehend and appreciate exactly what is expected of their individual efforts to meet the union free objective.... Unless each member of management is willing to spend the necessary time, effort, energy, and money, it will not be accomplished. The time involved is...365 days per year....

This admonition comes from a handbook Wal-Mart distributes to managers, and gives an idea of the passion and vision behind Wal-Mart's unionbusting project. The $259 billion retail behemoth that has become a defining feature of the American landscape has also profoundly altered labor politics, deploying ever more creative and ruthless tactics to suppress the right to organize, while driving down wages and benefits in the retail industry and beyond.

The company is providing a business model widely imitated by other corporations, especially its competitors. To take one recent example, after striking for months, grocery workers in Southern California were forced to accept a vastly reduced health plan early this year, as supermarkets, anticipating competition from new Wal-Mart Supercenters throughout the state, refused to compromise with the union -- probably the first time in history that a potential competitor who had not even entered the market yet was such a key player in a labor dispute. But the California grocers are not alone. Supermarkets all over the country have been lowering wages and decimating workers' health plans. Management claims these cutbacks are necessary to compete with Wal-Mart, but another explanation makes at least as much sense: "Greed," says Linda Gruen, a former Wal-Mart worker now organizing supermarket chains for the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW). "Management sees what Wal-Mart gets away with," she says, and realizes that the way to increase profits is to do the same.

Wal-Mart, which topped the Fortune 500 this year, for the third year in a row, is not just an industry leader: It is an economy leader, the nation's largest private employer by far, with over 1.2 million employees. That number is growing all the time, as Wal-Mart opens new stores just about every week. The average wage is around $8 an hour -- and the health plan so expensive and so stingy in its coverage that many workers go without, or depend on the government to pay their medical bills. Says Susan Phillips, vice president of the UFCW and head of its working women's department, for any private-sector union in the United States today, "anytime you go into's like there's this invisible 800-pound gorilla sitting in the room at the bargaining table." This is reflected particularly by employers' ebbing generosity on healthcare, but also on wages, pensions and other benefits. Journalist Bob Ortega observed in his 2000 book, "In Sam We Trust," that Wal-Mart's "way of thinking," its relentless focus on giving the customer the lowest price, "has become the norm," not just in retail but in all businesses. This can't be done without crushing labor.

That's why a consensus among labor leaders is emerging that organizing Wal-Mart workers is an urgent priority -- perhaps the most urgent facing a labor movement that is losing density and influence. Asked what it will take to organize Wal-Mart, Al Zack, outgoing assistant director of strategic programs for the UFCW, points to Wal-Mart's stated commitment to remaining "union free." Says Zack, "When the labor movement...matches that commitment, then it will be successful."

It would be difficult to exaggerate the magnitude of this challenge. Wal-Mart's rhetoric is supported by diligent practice. The company screens out potential union supporters through its hiring process: In addition to excluding those with union histories, the company also administers personality tests to weed out those likely to be sympathetic to unions, and offers managers tips on how to spot such people.

The same handbook, which was given to management in a Wal-Mart distribution center in Greencastle, Indiana, urged managers to be wary of certain union-friendly types, including "the Cause-Oriented Associate," who in high school "led demonstrations against everything from 'red dye' to 'ban the bomb.' He once took a trip to India to visit his personal 'guru.'" Managers are also encouraged to avoid the "Overly-Qualified Associate...a Ph.D operating a grinding machine or a former accountant sweeping the floor.... This type of associate includes the associate who has formerly made substantially more money with other employers."

During the hiring process, many workers say they have had to sign forms agreeing that they would not support any effort to unionize the store, a clear violation of federal law. Lorraine Hill, who worked for Wal-Mart in Rock Springs, Wyoming, and in Oxford, Maine, says all her co-workers did this. "If you don't sign that paper you are not employed," she says. "It's not legal. It's not ethical. But if you are low income and you need the job, you abide by the rules."

Of course, these preventive measures do sometimes fail, and workers begin to organize. Wal-Mart is prepared for that, too. At any sign of union activity in a store, managers call the company's Bentonville, Arkansas, headquarters, which sends a "labor relations team" by private plane (Air Walton) to the offending store to crush the organizing effort, often the very day the call comes in.

In the United States, only one group of Wal-Mart employees has successfully organized. In February 2000 ten meatcutters in Jacksonville, Texas, voted 7 to 3 to unionize their tiny bargaining unit. Two weeks later, Wal-Mart abruptly eliminated their jobs by switching to prepackaged meat and assigning the butchers to other departments, effectively abolishing the only union shop on its North American premises. After more than three years, in June 2003, a federal labor judge ruled this move illegal and ordered Wal-Mart to restore the department and recognize the butchers' bargaining unit. Wal-Mart has appealed that decision.

Because the consequences are so minimal, Wal-Mart does not hesitate to break the law in order to stay union-free. Indeed, as the Greencastle handbook to managers notes frankly, during a union drive, "You ... are expected to support the company's position.... This may mean walking a tightrope between legitimate campaigning and improper conduct." Wal-Mart has been found guilty of many violations of workers' right to organize, even firing union sympathizers. But paying fines -- or in some cases, merely hanging a sign in the break room that states that the company violated workers' rights -- is for Wal-Mart simply part of the cost of doing business, a small price to pay for keeping unions out. Until labor laws are reformed to make violating workers' rights a criminal offense -- punishable by sending managers and CEOs to prison -- running Wal-Mart campaigns based on National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) challenges may be fruitless.

Recently Wal-Mart decided that remaining union-free is a political issue, becoming 2003's number one corporate contributor to candidates, 85 percent of them Republicans. Most corporations, realizing that both Democrats and Republicans respond to business interests, give almost equally to the two parties. But Wal-Mart operates on the premise that while Democrats owe something to labor, Republicans don't -- and therefore, if its donations can purchase GOP dominance, they are well spent. Wal-Mart, especially as it moves into urban areas and into union-friendly regions like California, is strategically trying to buy as many politicians and NLRB appointments as it can.

Yet despite Wal-Mart's clear focus on fighting unions, the labor movement has been slow to respond. In the late 1980s the UFCW began to realize that Wal-Mart's rapid growth and competitiveness -- and rapid incursion into the grocery industry, which had been mostly unionized -- posed an urgent threat to members' jobs. The first Supercenter -- a twenty-four-hour Wal-Mart selling groceries in addition to the company's traditional range of goods, from ladies' underwear to lawn mowers -- opened in 1988; by the end of 2003, Wal-Mart had opened 1,430 of them. Wal-Mart had historically been concentrated in "right-to-work" states in the South, but as it grew, the company encroached upon more unionized Western and Northeastern regions. Still, the union effort was halfhearted until the late 1990s, when supermarkets began losing market share to Wal-Mart and it became painfully obvious that the company threatened the UFCW's very survival -- and its members' hard-won comfortable lives.

As the UFCW's humbling defeat in the California grocery strike showed, the union, after years of friendly relations with so many regional grocery stores, does not know how to conduct an antagonistic national campaign, or how to make use of nationwide publicity and public sympathy for workers. Many labor organizers, pointing to such failings, blame the UFCW for its failure to organize Wal-Mart.

But the mistakes of this particular union may almost be beside the point. While it is true -- and sobering -- that the UFCW devotes only 2 percent of its national budget to the Wal-Mart campaign, it is also true, as many in the labor movement are beginning to recognize, that there is no way any single union could tackle an opponent of this size and genius. As Mike Leonard, just-retired director of strategic programs for the UFCW, observes, if his union spent all its resources on organizing Wal-Mart workers, it would have to neglect the pressing needs of current members. As big as the UFCW is -- at 1.4 million members, it is the nation's largest private-sector union -- Wal-Mart will soon have more US employees than the UFCW has members. "It's not a fair fight," says Wade Rathke, founder and chief organizer of ACORN and Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 100, in New Orleans. No union has ever organized an entity the size of Wal-Mart, let alone one as creative and coordinated in its anti-unionism. "You have to admire this company," says Rathke. "They are very disciplined, and they've got a program." Labor doesn't, at least not yet.

Increasingly, labor leaders recognize this, and are taking the first step: admitting they have a problem. "This problem [Wal-Mart] is on the short list of any serious labor leader in the country," says Rathke. Andy Stern, president of the SEIU, has opened a dialogue on the subject on his weblog, soliciting ideas about strategy. (The SEIU is not attempting to organize Wal-Mart, nor is any union other than the UFCW, at this point.) Stern, who began the blog conversation with a picture of himself standing in front of one of Wal-Mart's thirty-nine Chinese stores, said in an interview that he sees the blog as an opportunity "to do what Howard Dean did," to stimulate interest, and then as a campaign evolves, mobilize people into action.

As the growing engagement of other unions in this discussion suggests, the UFCW cannot "stop" or change Wal-Mart alone. The task will demand the close cooperation and resources of other labor organizations. Asked what it will take to organize Wal-Mart, Ginny Coughlin of the textile union UNITE, which has recently begun organizing retail workers -- but has no immediate plans to take on Wal-Mart -- says, "I was just talking about this with a colleague the other day. We figured 3,000 organizers at a minimum. And all the resources, political will and leadership of probably four or five major unions." It is not inconceivable that this could happen: Labor leaders' recent rhetoric about greater cooperation between unions is more than talk. Several large unions are launching joint campaigns to organize low-wage workers. UNITE and HERE (the hotel and restaurant workers' union), for example, which are now in the process of merging, are working with the SEIU to organize employees at Sodexho, the nation's largest dining-services provider -- which will involve more serious cooperation between labor organizations than we've seen in years. On May 12 prominent labor leaders held a meeting at SEIU headquarters to discuss the Wal-Mart problem, but partly because most people in the labor movement are preoccupied with defeating Bush, such dialogue is proceeding slowly.

Leonard, who ran the UFCW's Wal-Mart campaign for the past four years, thinks the "entire labor movement" should devote resources to helping Wal-Mart workers build a new, AFL-CIO-affiliated union "from the ground up." If other unions simply run a joint campaign against Wal-Mart, he argues, they are just going to drop out "as soon as they have their next big problem" affecting their own members' immediate interests.

International cooperation could be key to any Wal-Mart organizing strategy. As Andy Stern, just back from China, points out, "Wal-Mart is second only to our current President in unpopularity around the world" [see Carl Goldstein, "Wal-Mart in China," December 8, 2003]. Since Wal-Mart is an increasingly global company, fighting it invites potential for cross-border solidarity, especially in Germany, where many Wal-Mart workers are unionized and the company abides by a sectorwide agreement with a large retail union, and has been the target of pickets and warning strikes. In Britain some ASDA (British Wal-Mart) stores have shop stewards, but none of the workers are recognized as union members, or are covered by a collective-bargaining agreement. In Brazil Wal-Mart has had to reach agreement with unions on some workers' rights issues, while in Japan all of the company's workers are unionized, and Wal-Mart abides by an agreement reached with the stores' previous owner.

Many in the US labor movement believe that Wal-Mart requires a new organizing strategy. "There is no existing organizing model that unions have effectively employed to date that would organize this company," says Wade Rathke, who believes workers need a way to build their own institutions that is "not based on the permission of the employer."

Joel Rogers, a longtime social-justice activist and University of Wisconsin political scientist, agrees that the traditional model of organizing -- by industry, with a focus on getting a majority vote in each shop, which under the law makes all the workers in that shop part of the union -- cannot work for Wal-Mart. Rogers advocates an approach he calls "open-source unionism," in which workers could join unions even if the majority of their co-workers had not yet chosen to do so [see Richard B. Freeman and Joel Rogers, "A Proposal to American Labor," June 24, 2002]. Membership would focus on the individual, not the firm or job; a member could still belong to the union if and when she changed jobs. "It would be a kind of 'Wal-Mart Workers Association,'" says Rathke. This feature makes particular sense at a company like Wal-Mart, where turnover is so high. Under this model, employers could not insure that by defeating unions in elections, their workplaces would remain union-free. While these unions would lack collective-bargaining rights, members would receive advice from the union on how to protect their rights during disputes, and help in improving pay and working conditions through collective action. They would also benefit from alliances with community groups and other unions in putting pressure on their employer. Open-source unionism certainly needs re-branding, since only technologically knowledgeable geeks -- most of whom are middle class -- would understand that phrase, which derives from a term referring to the free exchange of software on the Internet. But it could provide a structure enabling workers' political activism, making it much easier for workers at companies like Wal-Mart to agitate to improve their situation, in cooperation with other workers.

This model isn't just a wonky abstraction. Though they may use different language to describe it, women and immigrants -- including sweatshop workers in the United States and Latin America, and New York City taxi drivers -- have been at the forefront of similar new organizational strategies. In her 2001 book Sweatshop Warriors: Immigrant Women Workers Take On the Global Factory, Miriam Ching Yoon Louie describes how garment workers have developed worker centers both to agitate for rights on the job and to develop political consciousness and become part of a larger social movement. These are, of course, much smaller-scale than a Wal-Mart Workers Association would be, but the principles -- organizing without permission from employer or government, and affiliating with workers who are not in the same shop -- are the same.

"It is essential that Wal-Mart workers have something like that," says Jane Collins, a professor of rural sociology and women's studies at the University of Wisconsin who has studied women's labor organizations in Latin American free-trade zones. Most Wal-Mart workers are women, and women -- whether in Latin America or in immigrant communities in the United States -- have been at the forefront of these new forms of organizing because, says Collins, they have been excluded, or poorly served, by the traditional unions. Similarly, Wal-Mart women find themselves in their current dismal position both as a result of mainstream labor's failure to recognize, early on, the importance of organizing low-wage retail workers and because of working-class women's historic -- and ongoing -- exclusion from unionized skilled trades.

"This might not work either," admits Rathke, of the Wal-Mart Workers Association idea. But it should be tried, he argues, because "we need a new strategy."

Most people agree that any serious approach to forcing Wal-Mart to the bargaining table must eventually threaten the company's profits. Labor organizers used to think they could do this by asking the public not to shop at Wal-Mart, but now most concede that's impossible, given the retailer's low prices. Their own members shop at Wal-Mart, making at least 30 percent of union credit-card purchases at the retail giant. Even activists thinking seriously about how to oppose the retailer keep finding themselves in its parking lots. "I love that damn store," says Rathke, who recalls being a loyal customer when he lived in Arkansas and needed the discounts. "They had me. I wasn't making 2 cents to put together." Now he lives in New Orleans, and admits, "Damned if I don't go down to Sam's for a new tire! They do have something that works. You can't just convince people they're evil." Indeed, many rural and working-class women view Wal-Mart as an ally, an oasis of low prices in an unfriendly world. In her chart-topping paean to country pride, "Redneck Woman," Gretchen Wilson sums it up irresistibly: "Victoria's Secret, well their stuff's real nice/But I can buy the same damn thing on a Wal-Mart shelf half price/And still look sexy, just as sexy as those models on TV/No, I don't need no designer tag to make my man want me." The question of how to threaten profits, given such intense consumer loyalty, is one of many that the labor movement's current dialogue must engage.

While simply telling people not to shop at Wal-Mart may be a losing battle, fighting Wal-Mart and companies like it will require convincing the public that discounts are no substitute for economic justice. Says Beth Shulman, author of The Betrayal of Work: How Low-Wage Jobs Fail 30 Million Americans and Their Families, "We need to talk about cost in a larger way. It is not just about saving $25, but the cost to the lives of workers and their families, and to society." That conversation has already begun in Georgia, Washington State and elsewhere, where studies have shown that Wal-Mart employees depend on public assistance far more than do workers employed by other large companies. April Hotchkiss, who makes $8.33 an hour as a clerk in a Pueblo, Colorado, Supercenter, has had her healthcare costs paid for by the state's program for the indigent. She dreams of the day she will no longer have to shop or work at Wal-Mart. "Whenever I'm able to quit this place, and find something better, I'm never going to set foot in another [Wal-Mart] again," she says. "I don't care how low the prices are -- of course the prices are low, because they don't pay anybody worth crap!"

Ultimately, for this campaign to succeed, the entire progressive movement -- not just labor -- will have to make the unionization of Wal-Mart a priority. Pointing to the recent victory in Inglewood (a Los Angeles suburb where voters rejected a move by Wal-Mart to exempt itself from local zoning rules and erect a massive Supercenter) and the momentum of similar battles in Chicago and elsewhere, Rathke says that when it comes to fighting Wal-Mart, "there is more traction in the community than on the labor side." Andy Stern agrees, envisioning his blog conversation as the beginning of a movement-wide campaign by progressives to bring pressure on Wal-Mart. "The campaign needs to begin not as a labor campaign," says Stern, pointing out that community organizations "are more used to sustaining people around issues for long periods." Similarly, while Stern thinks there is "clearly an opportunity to create a Wal-Mart Workers Association," given that so many employees are unhappy with their working conditions, he thinks it might be a job for ACORN and other community organizations, since "it is not a traditional union model."

But Stern believes the labor movement should put resources behind a central organization that could serve as a resource for -- and help coordinate -- the many constituencies (workers, environmentalists, feminists, anti-sprawl advocates, churches, small-business owners) opposing Wal-Mart. At present, these groups work largely in isolation. Says Rathke, "There's no place to call and ask, 'How do you bring the ghostbusters in?'"

Labor activists talk a lot about involving the "community," which all agree is an important component in the struggle to unionize Wal-Mart. Yet one advantage Wal-Mart has in this regard is that with 70 percent of its stores located outside of metropolitan areas, and "Main Street" dying everywhere, it's doing business in many places where there isn't much of a community. In urban areas like Inglewood, and in some small towns, black churches, small-business associations and other institutions have been able to facilitate a discussion about whether Wal-Mart serves or thwarts the common good. But in many of the rural and exurban counties and townships where the retailer has traditionally operated, there has been no basis for such a debate: only isolated families struggling to get by, grateful to be able to load up their cars with cheap groceries from Wal-Mart. As is often the case, rhetoric about "community" can blind us to the crucial problem of its absence. On the other hand, wherever there is a thriving civic culture, that culture is an essential ally in the fight against Wal-Mart. In Vermont, for example, controversy over proposed superstores recently inspired the National Trust for Historic Preservation to declare the entire state "endangered" by the retailer.

It's encouraging that labor leaders are talking about this problem and entertaining so many new approaches. Yet as Mike Leonard cautions, in the labor movement, "it's a pretty rare day when we go beyond talking about a new idea, and that's part of the problem." And many workers are not optimistic now. Linda Gruen, who tried for several years to organize her Wal-Mart co-workers, is "not sure we will ever unionize Wal-Mart." April Hotchkiss, who still works at Wal-Mart and is trying to organize her co-workers, shares Gruen's view at times. "It is like parting the Red Sea," she says. "Sometimes I think it ain't going to happen. It is one of the hardest things I've ever tried to accomplish. I'd probably be better off trying to run the New York City Marathon."

Report From New York

"This is so unconstitutional!" frustrated demonstrators kept exclaiming, as police kept blocking their passage.

Protestors in New York City on Saturday were angry, not only because President Bush was making plans to wage a brutal war on Iraq, but because, five days earlier, a federal judge had upheld the city's right to deny organizers a permit for a march. The city had permitted a rally at the United Nations, but most people never got there because of the police blockades.

As a result, in an exhilarating expression of the anti-war movement's profound decentralization and spontaneity, peaceful demonstrators filled the streets, marching in whatever direction they could. It was the best anti-war protest yet, everyone agreed. Who needed to stand still in the cold and listen to the (at least 30) boring speeches, when so much of the city was one enormous, intoxicating, unpredictable protest march?

More than 70 illegal feeder marches--organized by everyone from NYC People of Color to NYC Labor Against the War to the GLAMericans for Peace (the latter decked out in glitter and feather boas, bearing signs like "Makeup Not War" and "Baby, I am the Bomb") set the tone for the day, though people quickly lost track of organizations and affinity groups, happily mingling with the festive multitudes. Try as they did--and they did, of course--police could not contain this protest. Taking over First, Second and Third avenues, from Midtown, extending past 80th Street, people of all ages chanted and marched, waving signs, which included, "War in Iraq is Wack," "Goo Goo Dolls Fans for Peace," "Viva La France!" "It's Imperialism!" "Lay Down Your Swords (J. Christ, Occupied Palestine)" and "Eat Another Pretzel, Asshole."

The protest, organized by United for Peace and Justice (though every major national coalition participated), was a phenomenal achievement. There were probably well over one million people demonstrating in New York City on Saturday. Melbourne had kicked off the protest weekend with 150,000 people on Friday. At least a million turned out in London on Saturday. Protests took place in Syria, Brazil, Argentina, Canada, Bulgaria, Spain, France, Italy, Ireland, Indonesia, Uruguay, Germany, Greece, South Korea, Sweden, Switzerland, New Zealand, Malaysia, Thailand, Holland, Denmark, South Africa, Japan, Bangladesh, Bosnia, Hong Kong, Kashmir, Russia, China, Ecuador, India, Iceland, Egypt, Nigeria and even Antarctica.

Israelis and Palestinians demonstrated for peace together in Tel Aviv. In the United States, rallies were also held in Minneapolis, Los Angeles, Sacramento, Seattle, Chicago, Detroit, Austin, Buffalo, Raleigh (North Carolina), Columbus (Ohio), Huntsville (Alabama), Athens (Georgia) and numerous other cities. Worldwide, Saturday's may have been the largest coordinated peace protest in history.

The day's protests were so massive that even the mainstream media were compelled to report on them, and even the President had to respond. Back in New York, in Flanagan's, an Irish bar on First Avenue where some protesters stopped to eat, drink and get warm, patrons cheered as TV reporters remarked on the staggering size of the protest. They jeered at President Bush's assurances that he, too, favored peace and was still hoping the conflict with Iraq could be resolved peacefully.

On the streets, the mood was buoyant. At one point, when a police car, siren blaring, drove through the crowd, one protester laughed. "They're making it so much better. I hope they know that. More noise, more fun!" She was right, of course. But at certain points in the day, things got ugly.

As it grew dark, I followed a group of protesters, younger than the majority of the day's marchers. Though confrontational, they were more law-abiding than most of us had been all day: they were actually staying on the sidewalk. They were marching and chanting on the sidewalk on Eighth Avenue, away from Times Square, where the police presence was dense and intimidating. As the group turned to walk downtown on 41st Street, more than a dozen mounted police officers surprised them. The marchers hastily turned away. A few minutes later, we were ambushed on 39th Street, by cops on foot coming at us from both sides. "Freedom to Assemble," protesters chanted. One young man yelled, "What's the big deal? There are more people on the sidewalk after 'Miss Saigon.'"

Some people were taunting the police and showing a certain tactlessness, chanting "Go fight crime" and "We pay your salary" ("Cops deserve a raise" might have won us more friends). But mere rudeness is legally protected. The cops arrested all of us, abruptly, for absolutely no reason, lining us up against the wall to be searched. Clearly they were sick of us and wanted to go home. That was understandable, but last time I checked, no legal basis for arresting people.

Just as I realized, panicking, that I forgot to bring the National Lawyers Guild phone number with me, a small group of us were released, again for no apparent reason. (Yet probably not entirely at random: a young black man capturing everything on videotape was among those released. As we ducked into a warm, cop-free Starbucks, he told me, "They usually let me go when I've got the camera turned on.")

Those who weren't so lucky were taken down to One Police Plaza, where they were held without charges, in handcuffs, denied medical attention and access to toilets, food and water. According to the National Lawyers Guild, the NYPD arrested more than 322 people throughout the day.

Police misconduct should never be allowed to overshadow the issue of war -- and the lack of a permit undeniably made the protest bigger, more conspicuous and more fabulous -- but the city showed remarkable indifference to protesters' rights, and shouldn't get away with it. Some cops expressed private dissatisfaction with the city's decision not to grant the permit, saying it made their jobs much harder: a single, legal march would have been easier to control.

John Mage, who has been active in the National Lawyers Guild for decades, said the city was unlikely to make this blunder again. "Trust me," he laughed, "next time they'll be allowed to march."

New York City-based journalist Liza Featherstone has written for The Nation, Lingua Franca, the New York Times, the Washington Post and Ms.

Mighty in Pink

"It's not easy to be warm and fashionable at the same time," smiled Nina Human of Atlanta, who, ensconced in a billowing pink scarf, was succeeding admirably. It was a sunless late afternoon in January, and Human was at the Women's Peace Vigil in front of the White House, protesting the Bush Administration's impending war on Iraq. Human has never protested anything before, but she has spent many sleepless nights worrying about this war. She learned about the vigil, organized by the Code Pink Women's Pre-emptive Strike for Peace, on the web. "I told my husband and my boss: 'I'm going,'" she said.

The name Code Pink is, of course, a clever spoof on the Bush Administration's color-coded terrorism alerts. The idea grew out of the observation of organizers -- including Starhawk, Global Exchange's Medea Benjamin and Diane Wilson of Unreasonable Women -- that women were leading much of the current antiwar organizing and that more women than men opposed the war on Iraq.

In October, women all over the country began wearing pink to protests, while Benjamin and her cohorts conceived the Women's Vigil, a constant, rolling presence in front of the White House. The vigil began Nov. 17 and will conclude with a week of actions in the first week of March, ending on March 8, International Women's Day. Code Pink-inspired vigils are regularly held in Utah, Texas and elsewhere, and a group of women in Albany, New York, will keep a rolling fast and vigil until March 8. Code Pink is not an organization but a phenomenon -- a sensibility reflecting feminist analysis and a campy playfulness, influenced in style and philosophy both by ACT UP and the antiglobalization movement.

Though everyone is moved by the seriousness of the issue -- many participants feel that the survival of the planet is at stake -- the actions have been high-spirited. In December a Code Pink posse disrupted a press conference held by Charlotte Beers, a public relations expert hired by the State Department to market the war on terrorism, especially in Islamic countries. In the middle of the event Code Pink activists unfurled a pink banner, which admonished, "Charlotte, Stop Selling War."

An action in New York City on Martin Luther King Day targeted Laura Bush, who was speaking at the Sheraton, holding signs urging her to "Tell George Not to Go to War." Even when Code Pink actions are small, says Medea Benjamin, "We're dressed in pink, so it's hard to ignore us."

Code Pink is part of a rising tide of creative and memorable feminist antiwar activism. In early January a group of Point Reyes, California, women spelled out PEACE on a beach with their naked bodies, protesting Bush's "naked aggression." A few weeks later and many degrees colder, a group of New York women did the same. The Lysistrata Project, named for the Aristophanes character whose name means "she who disbands armies" (Lysistrata organized Athenian and Spartan women in a sex strike in order to get men to stop making war), is working to make the connections between peace and reproductive freedom. The Raging Grannies, a guerrilla theater group with origins in the Canadian antinuclear movement, have also been a vibrant presence. These activists are joined by established international groups like Women in Black and the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom.

Historically, women's resistance to militarism has taken many forms -- and ideas about it have varied. In her 1938 treatise Three Guineas, Virginia Woolf argued that as a woman, she had no reason to be patriotic, as the state denied her equal property and citizenship rights. She wrote, "If you insist upon fighting to protect me, or 'our' country, let it be understood, soberly and rationally between us, that you are procure benefits which I have not fact, as a woman, I have no country. As a woman I want no country. As a woman my country is the whole world."

Other feminists have suggested that whether because of biology or culture, women's traditional roles as caregivers -- especially as mothers -- lend us a more life-affirming worldview, one that frowns on war and violence. In this spirit, in 1961 a national organization called Women Strike for Peace organized 50,000 women nationwide to walk off their jobs and out of their kitchens, to demand that their elected representatives embrace a nuclear test ban. These women wanted to protect their children, but as historian Amy Swerdlow has pointed out, they also felt a motherly responsibility to the world. As one WSP participant put it: "No mother can accept lightly even the remote possibility of separation from the family which needs her. But mankind needs us too."

The otherwise admirable antinuclear activist Dr. Helen Caldicott has appealed to popular audiences with an even less subtle traditionalism. "As mothers we must make sure the world is safe for our babies," she once said in a speech. "I appeal especially to the women to do this work because we understand the genesis of life.... We have wombs, we have breasts, we have menstrual periods to remind us that we can produce life!"

No Code Pink participant that I interviewed discussed her womb or her period (for this I was grateful). But Nina Human, the protester from Atlanta, said she felt that "women need to get together because it's our sons and daughters they'll force to go over there." Besides, she added, "I think women are basically more peaceful people."

This sort of sentiment doesn't sit well with Jenny Brown, a Gainesville, Florida, activist who is a member of Redstockings (yes, this radical feminist group, founded in the 1960s, is still around). "Since when are women naturally peaceful?" asks Brown. "Harriet Tubman carried a gun when she ran the underground railroad."

Brown is only 37, but her thinking comes out of a venerable tradition. In January 1968, radical feminists protested the Jeanette Rankin Brigade, an all-women peace formation. They held a funeral procession and buried traditional womanhood. As Brown explains, "They felt that appeals based on women's peaceful natures would only assure men that they were not a threat."

Particularly given the Bush Administration's ferocious attack on reproductive rights, now would be an especially bad time to reinforce traditional gender stereotypes or to exalt the cult of compulsory motherhood. The notion that women are biologically -- or even culturally -- destined to breed and to nurture could feed the forces of reaction. As radical feminists have long suggested, denying women's capacity for aggression -- and militancy -- also denies our power.

But asked about the emphasis on mothering, activists say it hasn't played a significant role in contemporary feminist antiwar organizing. "Some people like it," says Medea Benjamin. "But we really want to be inclusive. A lot of our friends don't have kids. We don't want it to sound corny, old or off-putting." Code Pink's mission statement emphatically rejects biological determinism:

Women have been the guardians of life -- not because we are better or purer or more innately nurturing than men, but because the men have busied themselves making war. Because of our responsibility to the next generation, because of our own love for our families and communities and this country that we are a part of, we understand the love of a mother in Iraq for her children, and the driving desire of that child for life.

Those standing in front of the White House had widely varying theories about why women should oppose war. Some pointed out that militarism is nourished, at least in part, by our ideas about masculinity. Gail Kielson, an activist who fights domestic violence in western Massachusetts, sees connections between the Bush Administration's bellicose, cowboy rhetoric and violence against women. Gesturing with some frustration toward the White House, she said she and others in her field have recently noticed "a curious, scary upsurge" in domestic violence: "There is a parallel between the President's attitude toward Iraq, and what men do in their homes."

The National Organization for Women has made a strong statement against war on Iraq, and has actively assisted the Women's Vigil from its Washington, DC, headquarters, which is just around the corner from the White House. NOW's statement does not mention women's peaceable natures, but focuses on practical objections to war with Iraq: Its massive cost would divert funds from education, healthcare and welfare, creating economic hardship, of which "women will bear the greatest burden." NOW also points out, "A U.S. invasion of Iraq will likely...[endanger] the safety and rights of Iraqi women -- who currently enjoy more rights and freedoms than women in other Gulf nations, such as Saudi Arabia."

Feminists were divided over the war in Afghanistan: Some applauded the overthrow of the Taliban, while others objected on anti-imperialist, nonviolent or practical grounds. Yet there is little controversy on Iraq. Bush has feebly attempted to use feminism to justify invasion, fantasizing that a "democratic" Iraq would show "that honest government, and respect for women, and the great Islamic tradition of learning can triumph in the Middle East and beyond." But feminists aren't buying it; few see reason to hope war will relieve the miserable condition of the Iraqi people, women included.

NOW's statement also makes the point that militarism often hurts women in unique ways, a point well understood by a group of Okinawan women at the White House vigil. Their protest group was founded in 1995, when a 12-year-old Okinawan girl was raped by US soldiers. The women had traveled to Washington to protest the impending war on Iraq, and spoke excitedly through a translator. Said Noriko Akahane, "Women don't want the military anywhere."

In addition to its political openness, one of the most convincing reasons for Code Pink's success is that it's fun. As Benjamin puts it, "Women like hanging out with other women." Indeed, the mood at the vigil, and at its nearby (tiny) administrative office, is buoyant. "Can't you feel the energy?" says Robin Metalitz, a student at George Washington University. Maddy Bassi, who is taking time off from school to work with Global Exchange, has been coordinating the Women's Vigil -- as well as a women's delegation to Iraq. "A few nights ago, I thought, 'I miss men!' So I went to a bar," she laughs. "But then, I wished I hadn't. I wanted to be back here!"

While some feminist activists are organizing against the war by using their identity and cultural power as women, many women -- and men -- are simply organizing with a feminist analysis. New Yorkers Say No to War (NYSNTW) is a good example, says Chris Cuomo, a feminist philosopher now teaching at Cornell University and active in the group, founded just after September 11. Its first meeting, held at Eve Ensler's apartment, was a who's who, as Cuomo puts it, of "the New York cliterati," including Urvashi Vaid, Laura Flanders, Sarah Schulman and other notables. Not all members of the group are women, but from the beginning, women have been running the show.

Even though the words "women" and "feminism" don't appear in the group's name, a gender analysis has always been at the forefront: The organization has held teach-ins on women and militarism, and hosted speakers from the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan. Many members of New Yorkers Say No to War come from the global justice movement, which has been deeply influenced by feminism, especially in its culture, which emphasizes consensus-building and communication.

Discussion in such groups is, for the most part, open and respectful. Like global justice activists, feminists have always tried to put political ideals into practice within their organizations, "creating another reality in a hostile context," as Cuomo puts it. "If peace isn't happening here," she asks, "how are we making it out there? There's an understanding that we're creating the new world here and now."

It is a measure of the success of this vision -- and of feminism -- that few feminists wish to exclude men from their organizations, and that so many male antiwar activists embrace feminist associations. The Women's Vigil welcomes men and has many male fans. As Medea Benjamin points out, "Men like to talk to women." Some local men come by every day. "They stand with us. It's nice because we're in control, and they're fetching things for us," explains Benjamin matter-of-factly. "Some men have baked us cakes."

Other men have been challenging militaristic masculinity on their own. At the Washington march on January 18, a group of tall, middle-aged men stood on the sidelines singing "We Are a Gentle, Angry People." A group of women singing that song -- a classic of the "womyn's music" genre -- might have seemed clichéd, dated, a bit wimpy. But in this rendition, the song sounded ironic and subversive, yet completely sincere: an optimistic glimpse of a different world. Just like Code Pink.

New York City-based journalist Liza Featherstone has written for The Nation, Lingua Franca, the New York Times, the Washington Post and Ms. In 2002, she co-authored "Students Against Sweatshops: The Making of a Movement" (Verso).

Peace Gets a Chance

"You look beautiful," shouted more than one speaker to the crowd that gathered in New York's Central Park on Sunday, Oct. 6, to protest George W. Bush's "war on the world," most urgently the impending invasion of Iraq. The lively and youthful demonstration -- some 20,000 strong -- was a beautiful sight indeed. A largely regional protest, it did draw some visitors from Ohio, Massachusetts and elsewhere, and a Swedish couple was overhead saying something incomprehensible -- except for the words "Not in Our Name."

Across the country, a nascent U.S. peace movement has gradually been gathering momentum. In September, at least 300 peace events were being held weekly in cities from Pensacola to Fairbanks. Organizers say they're attracting many who oppose the war in Iraq but were ambivalent about, or supported, war in Afghanistan. Reecha Sen, a volunteer for New York Not in Our Name, observes, "People who wouldn't have come out last year are joining us. They say, 'This is ridiculous; we have no support from the world.'"

Church leaders -- including many from conservative institutions, like the Evangelical Lutheran Church, as well as the outspoken National Council of Churches -- are against this war. Some mainstream politicians and many liberal Democrats have expressed doubt or outright dissent. An early October Gallup poll found 38 percent of Americans opposed to the war.

The group Not in Our Name began as an indignant rallying cry among some relatives of 9/11 victims, who formed an organization called Peaceful Tomorrows to oppose the bombing of Afghanistan. The slogan was then embraced by other antiwar New Yorkers, and in March 2002 a broad coalition conceived the idea of a national gathering around the theme at which congregants would take a pledge of resistance. ("Not in our name will you wage endless war... Not in our name will you erode the very freedoms you have claimed to fight for.") Somewhat infelicitous and arrhythmic on paper, the pledge is powerful when chanted out loud by thousands.

The all-volunteer Not in Our Name network established a national office in New York (sharing space with the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom), and activists all over the world adopted the slogan and organized events on the same day. Demonstrations were held in more than 28 U.S. cities, including big cities like Los Angeles, Seattle and Chicago, and progressive strongholds like Chapel Hill (North Carolina) and Portland (Oregon), as well as Corvallis (Oregon), Kickapoo region (Wisconsin), Westerly (Rhode Island), Houston, Salt Lake City, Greenville (South Carolina), Atlanta, Fort Wayne (Indiana), Sandpoint (Idaho), Charlottesville, Nashville, Kansas City and Anchorage. Outside the United States, Not in Our Name events drew demonstrators in Adelaide, Rome, Brussels and London.

At first, the "war on terrorism" seemed to bring out the worst in the left -- sectarianism, racial tensions, dour moralism, posturing, self-marginalization and badly muddled analysis. This was in sharp contrast to economic issues like trade policy and living-wage laws, which have in recent years inspired creative actions and coalitions, resonated with many ordinary people and even yielded small victories.

In the past few months, however, many activists have made an effort to transcend their divisions and to reach mainstream Americans. As Global Exchange co-founder Medea Benjamin -- who has organized some of the most visible protests, even personally disrupting Donald Rumsfeld's Sept. 18 Congressional testimony -- wrote in August: "We've got to talk to our friends, our relatives, our co-workers and let them know that yes, Saddam Hussein is evil, but he is not threatening us, he had nothing to do with September 11, and attacking a Muslim country...will put us and our families in danger."

In the same vein, sociologist and author Todd Gitlin, who supported the war on Afghanistan, reminded protesters at a September rally in front of the United Nations to be "careful" to condemn the crimes of Saddam Hussein as well as those of Bush, calling the Iraqi leader a "brutal dictator." His speech rankled some of the faithful -- one grumbled, "That's their propaganda! That kind of talk has no place at an antiwar rally" -- but it's just the sort of message that will help the antiwar movement reach a broader public.

What's more, the media-savvy creativity of the globalization activists is rubbing off on antiwar organizers. Activists protested Bush's September UN speech by unfurling a 1,500-square-foot banner over the East River. The banner, which read "Earth to Bush: NO WAR IRAQ!" was hoisted by four giant helium weather balloons. Increasingly, too, peace activists evoke the globalization movement's optimistic idiom. At the Central Park rally, the last line of the Not in Our Name pledge drew the most enthusiasm: "Another world is possible and we pledge to make it real."

Global Exchange's Jason Mark says the challenge now is to oppose "the idea of American empire without sounding like 1970s leftists. People don't want to sound off-the-wall, but the words 'empire' and 'imperialism' are fair game because they're using them" -- "they" meaning right-wing think tanks and Bush advisers. This new anti-imperialism is showing up in some surprising quarters. "The Administration's doctrine is a call for 21st-century American imperialism that no other nation can or should accept," Ted Kennedy has said. Anti-imperialism, Mark observes, could unite the globalization and antiwar movements.

Of course, not all the recent antiwar organizing has been this appealing and sensible. Even the smartest groups are making some questionable decisions, continually harping on the U.S. intervention in Afghanistan, a fait accompli that was enthusiastically supported by most Americans. At some protests, demonstrators have signs proclaiming Bush Knew, suggesting that the President was directly implicated in the 9/11 carnage.

Act Now to Stop War & End Racism (ANSWER), an international coalition, doesn't go in for such wacky conspiracies, but its rhetoric makes few concessions to Americans who may be concerned about security as well as imperialism. ANSWER's organizational skills are a blessing or curse for the peace movement, depending on whom you ask or, as one organizer laughs, "depending on the day."

The coalition has called a national march on Washington against the war in Iraq (Oct. 26) and in many parts of the country provides the only organizing structure for antiwar protests. Their calls to action are usually commendably simple, drawing large numbers of people. Yet ANSWER doesn't work well with other groups, and its rallies have a robotic, soulless feel. Some organizers say they would not work with ANSWER, while others, like Biju Mathew of the New York Taxi Workers Alliance, find that attitude intolerant and "sectarian." Mark complained about ANSWER but, citing a successful joint rally in San Francisco, said, "We've tried to mend fences."

To its credit, and in contrast to ANSWER's approach, Global Exchange has been appealing to those who fear that war on Iraq may distract the government from the al-Qaeda threat and even breed more terrorists. Global Exchange has been distributing thousands of fliers with the image -- originally from a New York Times ad taken out by -- of bin Laden in an Uncle Sam-like posture saying, "I WANT YOU to invade Iraq." Says Mark, "It resonates with a lot of people who think this [war] is going to erode rather than enhance U.S. security."

Undeterred by apparent indifference to their arguments in Congress, antiwar citizens have been taking up the issue with their elected representatives -- in person. On Oct. 3, 16 protesters were arrested after occupying Republican Senator Rick Santorum's Philadelphia office. Democrats who have received similar "visits" include Representative Tom Lantos of California, Senators Maria Cantwell and Patti Murray of Washington, and Senators Paul Wellstone and Mark Dayton of Minnesota.

At this writing, activists are occupying war enthusiast Dick Gephardt's office. On Sept. 29 some 3,000 antiwar protesters showed up at Dick Cheney's house in Washington, DC. And most of George W. Bush's recent appearances -- from Portland, Oregon, to Manchester, New Hampshire -- have sparked demonstrations. At the Cincinnati Museum Center, as Bush gave a nationally televised speech attempting to make the case for war, more than 2,000 people gathered in peaceful protest; after the speech, dozens blocked exits to the museum's parking lot.

In the coming weeks, more than 250 antiwar actions are planned nationwide, and Global Exchange's Jason Mark says he's getting calls constantly from people who want to contact politicians: "They say, 'I haven't done this since the Nixon Administration.' The war is really bringing people out of the woodwork."

Liza Featherstone is a New York City-based journalist whose work on student and youth activism has appeared in The Nation, Lingua Franca, the New York Times, the Washington Post and Ms. She is co-author of "Students Against Sweatshops: The Making of a Movement" (Verso 2002).

Welfare Moms Go to Washington

"I went down to Tommy Thompson's house," the crowd sang. "I took back what he stole from me /I took back my dignity /I took back my humanity /And now he's under my feet!" At that last line demonstrators stomped their feet vigorously, then began the next verse: "I went down to Congress..." The singers were nearly 2,000 welfare recipients and supporters gathered in the nation's capital on Tuesday, for a rally sponsored by the National Campaign for Jobs and Income Support, a coalition of low-income community groups urging Congress to pass legislation that will "reduce poverty, not caseloads."

The entire day was an exciting show of power by an increasingly organized grassroots welfare-rights movement. Clinton's 1996 welfare "reform" bill is up for reauthorization this year, and low-income advocates are ready to fight hostile proposals from both the Democratic Leadership Council and the Bush Administration. The week before the rally, the Administration unveiled a welfare reauthorization plan proposing many more workfare jobs, no new money for income support, childcare, transportation or job training, and plenty of new money for "marriage promotion." The Bush plan also forces parents to work even if they have infants, and makes it more difficult than ever for welfare recipients to get an education, the surest (though by no means guaranteed) route to a living-wage job. And contrary to earlier Administration promises, it provides no Medicaid or Temporary Assistance to Needy Families benefits for legal immigrants. The plan originally repealed minimum wage protections for workfare workers, but the day after the rally, after a Washington Post story exposed that provision, Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) head Tommy Thompson called it a "misunderstanding."

Activists at the event -- who came from North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Ohio, California, Illinois, Pennsylvania, Delaware and Montana -- emphasized the coalition's opposition to the Bush agenda. There are some progressive alternatives emerging. Bills sponsored by Hawaii Democrat Patsy Mink in the House and Minnesota's Paul Wellstone in the Senate restore benefits for legal immigrants, emphasize training and access to high-wage jobs, improve childcare provisions and allow education to satisfy work requirements. (Wellstone's bill goes further than Mink's, providing flexibility on time limits.) No one expects either bill to pass, says Deepak Bhargava, director of the National Campaign for Jobs and Income Support. "But they provide a vision to point to." According to Bhargava, the House is almost certain to pass a conservative bill; "the real debate will be in the Senate," where there are signs that moderate Republicans and liberal Democrats may support some improvements.

Low-income activists said they would like to get out of poverty but can't do it without access to childcare, transportation, job training or education -- and cash grants when needed. Like many of her fellow demonstrators, Wanda Davis of Moms on the Move (MOM), a Philadelphia welfare-rights group, said she needs to go to college in order to get a living-wage job: "I want my associates' degree," she said. "I'm hungry for it." Contrary to the rhetoric of the Clinton/Bush-era welfare reformers, the lack of job and income supports in the system seems designed to maintain a permanent underclass. "It's almost like they want you to stay in the system," said Davis, interviewed in front of the Health and Human Services building. "Enough of the revolving door. I want to get out."

After the rally, activists marched to HHS for a lively protest targeting Tommy Thompson, the former Wisconsin governor and architect of a welfare "reform" policy which resulted in a 37 percent spike in the black infant-mortality rate in that state.

But the dramatic highlight of the day was a surprise visit to the Heritage Foundation, whose senior research fellow Robert Rector has authored many of the screeds that inform the Bush welfare agenda, including The Good News About Welfare Reform and Using Welfare Reform to Strengthen Marriage.

Nearly a thousand welfare recipients and supporters stormed through Heritage's staid lobby, which has no apparent security, while others rallied outside. For about three minutes, the surprise delegation quietly made its way, unhindered, through the foundation's first-floor conference room and hallways, looking for Rector. Just as someone was wondering aloud where his office might be, Rector coincidentally -- and unsuspectingly -- appeared.

An elevator let him off right in the middle of the crowd, and the activists presented him with their demands. Because he writes policy that affects poor people's lives, they explained, "we ask you to walk in our shoes." The delegation asked him to spend two days living the life of a low-income American: one day in rural poverty, another in an urban ghetto. The coalition asked him to do this within thirty days and to meet with low-income community leaders beforehand to determine the specifics.

"I'd be happy to do that," said a nervous, somewhat ashen Rector. He also agreed to invite HHS chief Tommy Thompson to join him. The crowd cheered, and the activists filed out, mostly peaceably, under the motto that adorns the foundation's main exit: BUILDING AN AMERICA WHERE FREEDOM, OPPORTUNITY, PROSPERITY AND CIVIL SOCIETY FLOURISH.

Afterward, Barbara Cox, a New York City welfare recipient and Community Voices Heard (CVH) activist, laughingly recounted a silent exchange with Rector that occurred during the meeting. Someone offered him a pair of old sneakers, and, "He gave them back! They were all beat-up, nothing fancy, but didn't he say he would walk in our shoes?" Her friend Steven Bradley said skeptically, "Let's see if he keeps his word to the people."

Meanwhile, a smaller group -- around 400 -- stormed the offices of the Democratic Leadership Council, demanding to see the organization's president, Bruce Reed. At first they were told he wasn't there, but eventually he emerged, and a group of low-income women demanded that he hold a meeting with welfare recipients and key DLC senators. Reed kept pointing out that the DLC's welfare plan was better than the Bush plan, but finding the women unmollified, he agreed to set up the meeting. As they were leaving, Reed said petulantly, "I hope you're not just protesting here. You really should be at the Heritage Foundation."

"Oh yeah," replied one of the women, "we sent 1,000 people there, and only 400 here. They're more powerful, and have bigger offices."

Operation Enduring Protest

On Saturday, October 13, a cry to stop the bombing in Afghanistan was heard all over the world. More than 20,000 demonstrators in London, 15,000 in Berlin, 10,000 in San Francisco and thousands more in Sweden, Nepal, South Korea, Nigeria and elsewhere called for peace. A rally in New York City's Washington Square was comparatively small, attracting some 700 people.

That rally, organized by War Is Not the Answer, one of several emerging New York City peace coalitions, attracted New Yorkers of varying races and nationalities, but the 1960s generation was heavily represented. Protester Curtis Mack of Crown Heights avoided the draft during the Vietnam War, even though his seven brothers fought. He said, "We need a peaceful solution to this mess. Why can't we all just get along?" Smiling sheepishly at his reference to Rodney King's famous plea, he explained, "I don't have all the answers, but this is what I feel in my heart."

Still, performers and speakers were hardly limited to the usual left suspects. The Rev. Al Sharpton eloquently drove home the point that war is "not patriotism," a refrain now echoed by peace activists nationwide. Punk-rock icon Patti Smith--who cut a sexy, stringy-haired spectacle, wearing a blue wool cap, a white T-shirt and non-ironic crucifix--gruffly urged the assembled to "wrestle the world from fools!" Smith saved the gathering from turning into a 1960s flashback (other performers had perpetrated folk songs, including the dead-tired "I Ain't Gonna Study War No More").

Speakers were just as passionate as Curtis Mack, but unfortunately, equally short on answers. All did their best to avoid the thorny question of how to fight terrorism without bombs. Physicist Michio Kaku gave a witty speech about the ineffectuality and wastefulness of Star Wars; he said little about Afghanistan. Others engaged in more elaborate avoidance strategies, evoking well-worn left paradigms that seemed at best peripheral, if not completely irrelevant. Some talked about corporations that would profit from war, attempting to conjure the Gulf War with the slogan "No War for Oil"-which has been making a comeback nationwide. Though oil is crucial to the US relationship to the Middle East, and military contractors do benefit from war, it strains credibility to suggest that the Bush Administration's assault on the Taliban, a response to a brutal massacre on US soil, is driven by corporate greed. Many speakers blamed the ideologically biased media for public support of the war; rally emcee and Democracy Now! radio host Amy Goodman repeatedly invoked the concept of "manufactured consent." (Apropos of that, she ended the rally with an appeal to support her crusade against Pacifica, while some of her acolytes handed out fliers referring to the "Pacifica Board Hijackers.") Of course much of the mainstream media coverage amounts to a twenty-four-hour war infomercial. But when people are afraid of terrorist attacks, consent to an aggressive solution hardly needs to be "manufactured."

Some of Washington Square's assembled seemed frustrated with the event's muddled message. "It's so irresponsible," a woman sighed in exasperation as Al Sharpton concluded his rousing antiwar polemic. "He doesn't say what we should do." The left is accustomed to refusal. But there may be aspects of Bush's "war on terrorism" that peace activists should support, if they are to persuasively oppose its murderous violence. The current bombing campaign is killing innocent people, creating a relief crisis in a destitute country and further destabilizing an already-perilous region. It is dangerously limitless in its scope and military insiders are expressing serious concerns about whether it will even accomplish its goals. Yet given that terrorism is an immediate and continuing threat, protesters must be able to discuss alternative approaches to national security. "We'd like to see a united international effort to bring [the terrorists] to justice," rally organizer Reecha Upadhyay sai! d, admitting that the movement was finding it difficult to figure out how this would work. "We know what we shouldn't do."

But there's no reason to give up on the possibility of informed, credible resistance to the bombing of innocents. Another international wave of demonstrations is planned for November 11, including one in Washington Square Park that's likely to be much bigger than last Saturday's. On US campuses, from CUNY's Hunter College to Kansas State, antiwar protests, fasts and walkouts occur daily. Nearly as important are activists' attempts to develop reasonable analyses of the situation; many groups are focusing heavily on teach-ins and internal discussion. Says Upadhyay, whose coalition held a free-form public debate in Union Square after Saturday's rally, "Coming together and talking about it is a first step."

The Student Movement Comes of Age


"They must be afraid of the movement," says Jonathan "Doc" Bradley, a former US Army medic who is now a student activist at the University of Arkansas, "or they wouldn't be reacting this way." The "movement" he is talking about is the student movement, and "they" are the police, university administrators and corporate moguls who have been unsuccessfully attempting to crush students' persistent challenge to corporate power. But this past summer, the movement faced even more formidable organizing challenges within its own ranks.

In August, United Students Against Sweatshops (USAS) and 180/Movement for Democracy and Education (MDE), another student anticorporate group, held a joint conference on the University of Oregon's Eugene campus. Just a few months earlier, USAS, the most visible and successful of all the new student groups, had rocked campuses nationwide with protests against sweatshop conditions in the collegiate apparel industry, occupying buildings on more than a dozen campuses. The protests forced more than fifty universities and colleges to capitulate to students' demands and join the Worker Rights Consortium (WRC), an organization independent of apparel-industry influence and founded in April by students as an alternative to the Fair Labor Association (FLA), an industry-backed monitoring group [see Featherstone, "The New Student Movement," May 15]. Addressing the conference plenary, Thomas Wheatley, a former student and USAS activist at the University of Wisconsin who now works for the National Labor Committee, a leading antisweatshop organization, reflected on the movement's past year: "I didn't think we'd ever get this far. We're really pushing the labor movement forward, and we beat the living shit out of Nike and all kinds of companies."
"The students have, very quickly, achieved a startling measure of power. The big question is, How will they use it?"

The students have, very quickly, achieved a startling measure of power. The big question is, How will they use it? Those gathered in Eugene faced a rather daunting agenda: figuring out how to work effectively with workers in the global South and, in particular, how best to use the newly founded WRC; how to coordinate campus organizing efforts; and how to advance their work in coalition with labor unions and others fighting poverty and exploitation in the United States. To do all that, they needed to create an organization with some semblance of structure-a body that could, when necessary, allow far-flung and disparate member groups to speak with one voice. Initially, the meetings seemed imperiled by backlash at the University of Oregon. In April administrators at the college-which is Nike CEO Phil Knight's alma mater and boasts several buildings, including the main library, bearing his name-had joined the WRC after a series of student protests. Knight retaliated angrily, withdrawing a pledge of $30 million for a new sports stadium. So when the student anticorporate groups proposed holding a joint conference there, wary administrators insisted that they be allowed to participate. When the students refused, the university went so far as to file a human rights complaint against them with the city of Eugene. The students eventually relented.

As it turned out, the conference-and, some thought, the entire movement-was nearly sabotaged by another local phenomenon, the same one that, during the protests in Seattle last November, put the languidly countercultural Eugene on the national radar for the first time in thirty years: anarchism. Ambivalence about the role of authority in the student movement led to bitter conflicts over USAS's structure, which reflected acute growing pains in the organization-not unlike those plaguing the rest of this lively, sometimes militant, radically decentralized global anticorporate movement.

University of Oregon students don't have much in common with the marauding hooded Eugene residents who, calling themselves the Black Bloc, have been such a controversial presence at recent national protests. Agatha Schmaedick, a University of Oregon USAS activist, laughs at the idea. "It's ironic because people associate us with [the Black Bloc anarchists], but those anarchists think we're totally reformist!"

But Eugene, like Madison, Wisconsin, which was also well represented at the meetings, has an intensely process-oriented student activist culture. Passions raged over the proposal to establish an elected governing body that would decide many of the questions that are currently left to conference calls open to the entire membership or to paid staff in the group's Washington, DC, office (who are not elected). The anarchists and radical democrats in attendance worried that such a body would turn USAS into a "hierarchical" and "bureaucratic" organization; one even warned, in an address to the plenary, that if the group adopted this structure "we'd be no better than a corporation." Others took a dim view of such arguments. George Washington University student Todd Tucker observed, "It just seems so stupidly American, like, 'I won't take orders from anyone.' It's John Wayne, not even Bakunin!" The controversy inspired twenty-nine hours of plenary meetings, two of which lasted past 3 am; at several junctures, anarchists walked out of the room and even burst into tears.

At present, some decisions about the national organization simply don't get made at all; for example, USAS was unable to spend money organizing a major presence at national protests in Philadelphia and Los Angeles this summer because no one had the authority to approve such a commitment. Although the conference calls (which cost the organization $25,000 last year) are clearly an attempt at participatory democracy, many students say they are not democratic, since only those who happen to find out about them, or can afford to get on the phone, can participate.

"It reminds me of the major split in SDS [Students for a Democratic Society]," said Molly McGrath, a recent University of Wisconsin graduate who spent the summer organizing the Eugene conference. While it's unlikely that this event will have the world-historical consequences that the SDS wars had, the conflict was in many ways analogous: Like the SDS founders, the anarchists are fiercely dedicated to nonhierarchical structures, but many of their fellow activists-whether liberal or far left-feel that such purism about process and structure conflicts with other movement goals. For example, USAS cannot react quickly to emergencies-such as a strike that could be aided by student solidarity actions. Moreover, developing relationships with workers in the global South is especially hard without tight structure and nimble coordination. This spring and summer, students traveled to Mexico, Nicaragua and Honduras to meet with labor activists and garment industry workers in those countries and to develop the networks for the nascent Worker Rights Consortium. In March, students investigated a Nike supplier in the Dominican Republic, where workers were being fired for attempting to organize unions. USAS activists also met with Dominican workers who were attempting to attend school at night and were consistently prevented from doing so by the factory's practice of forced overtime-production quotas were often impossible to meet within the nine-hour workday. In the past, the national USAS organization, lacking an infrastructure, has not been able to capitalize on such efforts, so figuring out a way to do so was an urgent priority at the meeting.

Despite the sometimes agonizing conflicts, the students made progress in Eugene. They strategized about how best to finance delegations to overseas sweatshops and about how to build alliances with workers' rights groups. They debated-and passed-a proposal to establish an International Solidarity Committee that would plan the delegations and make sure they were linked to specific campaigns. An elected governing body was established, and on the last night, those bleary-eyed USAS members who could stand to show up for the last few hours of late-night plenary decided to hold elections later this fall.

"The students' focus on corporations sometimes causes them to miss the point; for example, confronted with the incarceration boom, they focus on aspects of the prison industry that are relatively peripheral, like private prisons or prison labor. Antisweat activists at California schools, wishing to make common cause with antiprison activists, have been redefining prisons as sweatshops, because some prisons lease inmate labor for corporate profit. "

Besides the national USAS, the most crucial of this young movement's new institutions is the just-formed-and in many ways still undefined-Worker Rights Consortium. Though the WRC is a concept with great potential, it's still not clear how the organization will build relationships with workers or how it can best use the networks it already has. The WRC must carefully negotiate its own relationship to labor organizations, for example; the labor movement provides its best access to workers, yet the WRC must maintain some independence if it is to have credibility with university administrators. Funding raises even hairier questions; for instance, will the WRC, established by an anarchist-influenced student movement, accept government money? At present, the WRC is woefully understaffed and searching for an executive director; clearly it's too soon to make any judgments about its effectiveness. The disarray of the movement's national organizations may not inhibit organizing on individual campuses, partly because of the very decentralization the anarchists celebrate. Students at Ohio State, Nebraska, West Virginia, Wyoming and Montana are launching new campaigns this fall to get their schools to join the WRC and drop out of the FLA. At schools that have already joined the WRC, students are trying to make sure the administration complies with its requirements-disclosure of factory locations, for example. Some students are focusing on other pressure points; activists at Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts, for instance, are launching a national campaign to push Barnes & Noble-which operates 400 campus bookstores nationwide-to make its suppliers comply with the WRC's code of conduct.

Although student antisweatshop activists have been criticized for evading problems at home by focusing on corporate wrongdoing in the Third World, they have proven increasingly committed to fighting domestic poverty. A group of USAS students went on a delegation to the Kensington Welfare Rights Union in July, and hundreds of students participated in the group's protest march during the Republican National Convention. USAS is forging a long-term relationship with the welfare rights direct action group and will probably help KWRU fundraise for its Poor People's Conference in November. But students' most promising do- mestic solidarity efforts focus on the one arena in which they truly wield power: the campus. Some students are working closely with campus workers on new organizing drives at Earlham in Indiana, the University of Wisconsin, USC, Ohio State and numerous other institutions. Others are pressuring their administrations to boycott notorious unionbuster Sodexho Marriott, a French company that provides campus dining services and is also the largest investor in US private prisons (this campaign, which began in April, has already been successful at both Evergreen State in Olympia, Washington, and SUNY, Albany).

As the student movement begins to confront domestic injustices, however, anticorporatism may prove too limiting a language. It has been the movement's dominant idiom-made so dramatically visible by Seattle and A16, even penetrating national electoral politics via Ralph Nader's Green presidential campaign-and in many ways it's a useful one. As the villains everyone loves to hate, corporate power and greed lend coherence to a global youth movement that's too often viewed as diffuse and lacking focus. Anticorporatism translates admirably into union solidarity, and corporations provide a convenient euphemism for capitalism, which not everyone wants to talk about (after all, who wants to be taken for a glassy-eyed sectarian-newspaper pusher?). What's more, universities' cozy ties to large companies bring anticorporatism into students' daily lives-and, perversely, lend students power as consumers in the "academic-industrial complex."

But building a social movement to fight poverty may require a broader vision. Many people of color and poor people in the United States do not feel that anticorporatism can adequately describe their experiences of everyday inequality and injustice. Addressing the USAS conference, Maria Cordera of the Third Eye Movement, a Bay Area youth organization that fights police brutality and the prison industry, acknowledged that student anticorporate activists "need to connect prisons to globalization," but she observed that "for people of color, our bread and butter issue is not globalization, it's how are we going to feed our kids." (This, of course, is part of the reason Nader's presidential campaign has more support among the upscale than among the poor.)

Students fighting poverty in the United States must confront culprits more complicated-and closer to home-than corporate greed: class interests and the breakdown of the social contract. This past spring, Dave Snyder, a Johns Hopkins student who helped organize a sit-in over campus laundry workers' wages this year, led a USAS delegation to Kensington, the desperately poor Philadelphia community in which the welfare rights group is based. The residents "kept talking about the people who live in this nearby middle-class neighborhood, people who ignore them and shut them out," Snyder remembers. "I felt this rage against those middle-class people, trying to imagine what kind of horrible people they must be. Then we [the students] went to that neighborhood because someone's parents lived there, and I realized, this is my middle-class neighborhood; my parents would live here. I could live here."

The students' focus on corporations sometimes causes them to miss the point; for example, confronted with the incarceration boom, they focus on aspects of the prison industry that are relatively peripheral, like private prisons or prison labor. Antisweat activists at California schools, wishing to make common cause with antiprison activists, have been redefining prisons as sweatshops, because some prisons lease inmate labor for corporate profit. Although this has been effective in building multiracial coalitions, prison labor isn't as widespread as many activists claim, and-also contrary to student and youth activist rhetoric-the lure of prison labor profits does not motivate incarceration policy.

At the same time, workers overseas already understand the potential power of student anticorporatism. During the USAS conference, there was one moment that put the week's internal melodrama into perspective. That was when Rosa Gonzalez, a young worker who had just been fired for union organizing in a free-trade-zone factory in Mil Colores, Nicaragua-which supplies clothing to US companies like Kohl's and Target-addressed the students. She described a factory in which workers are frequently denied sick leave even in an emergency; women routinely have miscarriages in the bathroom. Gonzalez's own situation is desperate; her firing has branded her a troublemaker, and no other factory will hire her. Some days her family eats only one meal, she said, tears streaming down her face. Gonzalez told the students she hoped USAS could pressure the US companies to reinstate fired workers throughout the Nicaraguan maquila. "I ask your solidarity," she said. "You are our only hope."

Liza Featherstone is a freelance journalist based in Brooklyn. This article is part of the Haywood Burns Community Activist Journalism series, supported by the New World Foundation and the Nation Institute.

The New Student Movement

"We have the university by the balls," said Nati Passow, a University of Pennsylvania junior, in a meeting with his fellow antisweatshop protesters. "Whatever way we twist them is going to hurt." Passow was one of thirteen Penn students -- the group later grew to include forty -- occupying the university president's office around the clock in early February to protest the sweatshop conditions under which clothing bearing the U-Penn logo is made. The Penn students, along with hundreds of other members of United Students Against Sweatshops nationwide, were demanding that their university withdraw from the Fair Labor Association (FLA), an industry-backed monitoring group, and instead join the Worker Rights Consortium (WRC), an organization independent of industry influence, founded by students in close cooperation with scholars, activists and workers'-rights organizations in the global South.

At first the administration met the students with barely polite condescension. In one meeting, President Judith Rodin was accompanied by U-Penn professor Larry Gross, an earring-wearing baby boomer well-known on campus for his left-wing views, who urged the protesters to have more faith in the administration and mocked the sit-in strategy, claiming he'd "been there, done that." President Rodin assured them that a task force would review the problem by February 29, and there was no way she could speed up its decision. She admonished them to "respect the process."

Watching the Penn students negotiate with their university's president, it was clear they didn't believe any of her assurances. They knew there was no reason to trust that the administration would meet one more arbitrary deadline after missing so many others -- so they stayed in the office. After eight days of torture by folk-singing, acoustic guitar, recorders, tambourines and ringing cell phones, as well as a flurry of international news coverage, Judith Rodin met the protesters halfway by withdrawing from the FLA. (To students' frustration, the task force decided in early April to postpone a decision about WRC membership until later this spring.)

The most remarkable thing about the Penn students' action was that it wasn't an isolated or spontaneous burst of idealism. Penn's was just the first antisweatshop sit-in of the year; by mid-April students at the universities of Michigan, Wisconsin, Oregon, Iowa and Kentucky, as well as SUNY-Albany, Tulane, Purdue and Macalester, had followed suit. And the sit-in wasn't the protesters' only tactic: Purdue students held an eleven-day hunger strike. Other students chose less somber gestures of dissent. In late February the University of North Carolina's antisweatshop group, Students for Economic Justice, held a nude-optional party titled "I'd Rather Go Naked Than Wear Sweatshop Clothes." In late March, in an exuberant expression of the same principle, twelve Syracuse students biked across campus nude. The protests were a coordinated effort; members of United Students Against Sweatshops (USAS), which was founded three years ago and now has chapters at more than 200 schools, work closely with one another, a process made easier by the many listservs and websites that the students use to publicize actions, distribute information and help fuel turnout.

Though the largest, most successful -- and before Seattle, the most visible -- thread of the movement has focused on improving work conditions in the $2.5 billion collegiate apparel industry, university licensing policies have not been the only targets of recent anticorporate agitation on campus. This year, from UC-Davis to the University of Vermont, students have held globalization teach-ins, planned civil disobedience for the April IMF/World Bank meetings, protested labor policies at the Gap and launched vigorous campaigns to drive Starbucks out of university dining services. In snowy January, at the conservative Virginia Commonwealth University, twenty students slept outside the vice president's office for two nights to protest the university's contract with McDonald's (the school promised the fast-food behemoth a twenty-year monopoly over the Student Commons). Students at Johns Hopkins and at Wesleyan held sit-ins demanding better wages for university workers. And at the end of March hundreds of students, many bearing hideously deformed papier-mâché puppets to illustrate the potential horrors of biotechnology, joined Boston's carnivalesque protest against genetic engineering.

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With a joie de vivre that the American economic left has probably lacked since before WWI, college students are increasingly engaged in well-organized, thoughtful and morally outraged resistance to corporate power. These activists, more than any student radicals in years, passionately denounce the wealth gap, globally and in the United States, as well as the lack of democratic accountability in a world dominated by corporations. While some attend traditionally political schools like Evergreen, Michigan and Wisconsin, this movement does not revolve around usual suspects; some of this winter's most dramatic actions took place at campuses that have always been conservative, like the University of Pennsylvania, Virginia Commonwealth and Johns Hopkins. At this article's writing in late April, students were staging several significant anticorporate protests every week. It is neither too soon, nor too naïvely optimistic, to call it a movement.

Few of these students resemble -- either in appearance or tactics -- the hooded anarchist kids who famously threw rocks through Starbucks windows in Seattle last November. They look as if they shop at the Gap (and most of them do). Yet the movement does have an antihierarchical spirit; the Penn antisweat group, for example, made all decisions by consensus. Unlike their anarchist cohort, however, the student anticorporatists have leaders and spokespeople -- and most of them agree that if the movement is to maintain momentum, they will need many more. Fortunately, each major action seems to draw more people in, and new leaders are emerging fast -- some students who were on the periphery of the Penn group when I visited the sit-in in early February, for example, have already assumed official leadership positions within the organization.

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Much of the struggle concerns the corporatization of higher education. Universities are run increasingly like private firms, and have ever-more intimate relations with private industry [see David L. Kirp, "The New U," April 17]. During one antisweat occupation in mid-April, for example, student activists at the University of Oregon led a campus tour of sites that illustrated the institution's numerous ties to corporations (one stop was the Phil Knight Library, named after Nike's president and CEO). A nationwide student group called 180/Movement for Democracy and Education, based at the University of Wisconsin, articulates this problem, and its connection to other issues, more consistently than any other group, even leading teach-ins on how World Trade Organization policies affect higher education. But almost all of the current student struggles -- whether over tuition increases, apparel licenses, socially responsible investing, McDonald's in the student union, the rights of university laundry workers, a dining-hall contractor's investment in private prisons or solidarity with the striking students in Mexico -- focus on the reality of the university as corporate actor.

Battle lines are now being drawn on a number of campuses, including Penn and Wisconsin, over whether universities will give in to student demands and agree to join the Worker Rights Consortium. WRC members require their apparel licensees to comply with a strict code of conduct -- guaranteeing workers a living wage and the right to organize unions -- and mandate full public disclosure of wages, factory locations and working conditions. By denying industry any role in its governance and giving power instead to a board composed of administrators, students and human rights scholars and activists, the WRC provides a nascent model for the kind of university decision-making the students would like to see: a process free of corporate influence. It is also a model in which, so far, student activists have set the terms of discussion. No wonder so many university administrators, many of whom now like to be called "CEOs," have resisted it so savagely, even, in several cases, permitting quite forceful police treatment of peaceful protesters.

Yet many universities that once rebuffed the students' entreaties have since backed down, a testament to the skill and energy of the student organizers. The wave of sit-ins this spring was deliberately timed to precede the WRC's early April founding conference. Before the Penn sit-in, only a handful of institutions, none of which had substantial apparel-licensing contracts, belonged to the new organization; now forty-seven institutions belong, and the WRC founding meeting was attended by students or administrators from forty schools. The night before the meeting, the entire ten-school University of California system joined the organization and sent a representative to New York for the event. Some institutions joined without any building takeovers, choosing to avert bad publicity through graceful capitulation. "A lot of them joined without a sit-in because they thought there would be a sit-in the next day," says Maria Roeper, an antisweat activist taking a semester off from Haverford to coordinate the WRC.

Indeed, student activists have managed to put administrators on the defensive. On April 7 student antisweat protesters wearing duct tape over their mouths -- to protest the fact that students have no say in campus decisions -- met the University of Oregon president at the airport, frightening him so badly he left the baggage claim and hid in the bathroom. Even more striking, that same day, was the sight of dozens of suited university administrators at the WRC conference scurrying to "organize" among themselves. Many were pressured into WRC membership and worry that they won't have as much influence as they want over the new monitoring organization. Administrators were supposed to elect their representatives to the governing board at the founding meeting, but instead they asked for more time; they are now expected to do so later this spring, after holding their own meeting in Chicago. "It's only natural that they should want to do that," says Roeper. "The student group [USAS] did have a lot of power."

Industry, too, is getting nervous. Top officials of the Fair Labor Association, founded in 1996 by the Clinton Administration along with business representatives and some human rights groups, have been touring campuses, trying to convince students of their organization's good intentions. (Unlike the WRC, the FLA allows industry to choose its own monitors and doesn't include provisions for a living wage.) A week before the consortium's founding conference, Nike, which supports the FLA, canceled its contract with Brown University, objecting to the university's WRC membership. Nike has repeatedly denounced the WRC, calling it a "gotcha" monitoring system. "Nike is using Brown to threaten other schools," said Brown antisweat activist Nicholas Reville at the conference. More recently, Nike's Phil Knight, who had pledged $30 million to the University of Oregon for its sports stadium, indignantly withdrew the offer after the school announced its membership in the WRC.

In the recent history of student activism, the new emphasis on economics represents quite a shift. Ten years ago, there was plenty of student organizing, but it was fragmentary and sporadic, and most of it focused on what some, mostly its detractors, liked to call "identity politics," fighting the oppression of racial and sexual minorities, and of women. Admirable as they were -- and effective in improving social relations on many campuses -- there was little sense of solidarity among these groups, and they often seemed insular, bearing little relation to life outside the university.

That political moment is over, partly because in the larger world, organized feminism is in a lull and the mainstream gay movement now focuses on issues like inclusion in the military, gay marriage and hate-crimes legislation -- moderate goals that don't speak to student idealism. By contrast, the economic left -- especially the labor movement, and the burgeoning resistance to global capital -- is enjoying a resurgence, both in numbers and in vision. The new student anticorporatists are building strong relationships with unions, which are, in turn, showing remarkable dedication to the new generation. During February's Penn sit-in, a different union local brought the students dinner almost every night. "Seattle helped the unions see that the students were serious," explains Simon Greer, Jobs With Justice's Workers' Rights board director. When the University of Wisconsin sent in the cops to drag away fifty-four peaceful antisweat protesters, George Becker, president of the United Steelworkers, issued a statement denouncing the administration's "oppressive actions."

The early-nineties struggles haven't vanished without a trace; indeed, it sometimes seems as if, through the anticorporate movement, they have returned to their early-seventies roots as movements for radical liberation. Many of the leaders are women, and feminist analysis informs the movement's focus; the antisweat activists, for instance, frequently point out that most sweatshop workers are women. And although the struggle against homophobia has largely disappeared from the student progressive agenda, the tactics -- militant, theatrical and often campy direct action -- of early-nineties groups like ACT UP and Queer Nation have clearly influenced the new crew of student activists.

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Anticorporatism also has the potential to be a movement for racial justice. Farah Mongeau, a University of Michigan law student and member of U-M's Students of Color Coalition (SCC), points out, "[Sweatshop labor] obviously affects people of color. People of color are the ones who work in the sweatshops." Yet, although many core organizers are South Asian, the antisweatshop movement is mostly white. Organizing by students of color is on the upswing, but its relationship to the anticorporate groups can be uneasy. Some students of color say this is partly because white activists receive better treatment from those in power. At Michigan in February, SCC members protesting a racist secret society held a sit-in at the same time as the antisweat organization and resented the fact that while they were ignored for weeks, the predominantly white group got a meeting with the president immediately. Likewise, Justin Higgins, sophomore class president at North Carolina Central University, a historically black and working-class college, who in February had just joined the regional student anti-WTO/IMF coalition, said he wasn't planning to go to Washington, DC, and wasn't sorry to have missed Seattle. "If there had been black students [in Seattle]," Higgins said, "there would have been real bullets, not rubber bullets."

On the other hand, some less visible economic-justice campaigns on campus have been more racially mixed: those fighting university tuition hikes, for instance. And the student movement's relationship with labor may help break down its whiteness. In its early stages, very few black students were involved in the Johns Hopkins action demanding higher wages for university workers, for example, though the low-wage workers at the school are predominantly people of color. But when local unions got involved in the sit-in, they were able to recruit members of the black student group. On other campuses, multiracial alliances between anticorporate and prison activists are beginning to emerge (see "Hip-Hop Politics on Campus," page 16, on the role of hip-hop music in this coalition). In early April students at ten campuses launched a boycott campaign against Sodexho-Marriott, which operates more than 500 campus dining halls, is the largest investor in US private prisons and is also currently facing censure from the National Labor Relations Board. In an April sit-in at SUNY-Albany, activists, in addition to sweatshop-related demands, insisted that the university drop Sodexho-Marriott if the company did not divest from private prisons and improve its labor practices.

Part of the problem with early-to-mid-nineties student "identity politics" was an obsession with representation -- only queers could talk about homophobia, only people of color could talk about racism -- which seriously limited its constituency. Such first-person politics also restricted diverse activists' ability to work together and find common ground. Yet its premise -- drawn from seventies feminism -- that the personal is political laid the foundation for one of the core assumptions of the current anticorporate movement, which is that because we are consumers, we are personally implicated in the depredations of capital. In the antisweat movement, students initially got involved because they were horrified to find out about the exploitation behind products that were a part of their everyday lives. Says Penn sophomore and USAS member Roopa Gona, "We're talking about our clothes." Student public-education campaigns about Starbucks -- which, in mid-April, was pressured into buying Fair Trade Coffee -- and genetically modified food also focus on buying power. The consumer experience is one that everyone has in common, rather than one that emphasizes power differences among students.

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Exposing the sweatshop horror behind ubiquitous logos is subversive, especially in a culture completely hypnotized by them. The whole purpose of logos and brands is commodity fetishism; we are supposed to crave them but not question the conditions under which they were made. But, as Naomi Klein observes in her new book, No Logo: Taking Aim at the Brand Bullies, companies trafficking in image are particularly vulnerable when those images are tarnished. Obscure information-technology companies can quietly outsource their data-entry work to Mexican sweatshops, but companies like Disney, Starbucks and the Gap are different: Their prominence in consumers' hearts and minds makes it far easier for activists to publicize their wrongdoings. Like other contemporary anticorporatists -- those vandalizing and protesting under Golden Arches worldwide, for instance -- students have expertly used big capital's catchy logos against it. And just like the Nike swoosh, "we can think of the university itself as a brand, a logo, that students consume," says veteran antisweat activist and University of North Carolina junior Todd Pugatch. Universities, especially prestigious ones or those with high-profile sports teams, depend on image, too. The recognizability of the University of Michigan's big yellow M, like that of McDonald's, can backfire if the logo comes to symbolize exploitation and corporate greed.

Still, brand targeting has limits. One of the ways in which contemporary capitalism maintains its hold on us is by defining everyone as consumers -- rather than, say, citizens, workers or activists. A crucial problem for the anticorporate movement is how to appeal to a wider public without reducing politics to shopping. And students are realizing that simply as indignant shoppers, they can't be very effective. Boycotts in the apparel industry are futile because all major clothing companies use sweatshop labor, explains Laurie Eichenbaum, a Penn senior and USAS organizer who was wearing a red Old Navy fleece when I met her: "There is no good alternative." Saurav Sarkar, of Yale Students Against Sweatshops, says, "That's the most common misperception about us. People say, 'Oh, I don't want to stop buying clothes at the Gap.'" Crucial to the anticorporate movement's gradual evolution beyond consumer consciousness and toward labor solidarity and broad structural change, as UNC's Pugatch observes, will be its relationship with workers, in the US labor movement as well as in the global South. If the WRC develops as the students hope, it will help give workers and unions a stronger voice in the apparel industry, rather than simply conferring a Good Housekeeping-style seal of approval on "sweat-free" brands.

Despite this emerging vision, not all students come to anticorporate activism with a radical outlook. "People are drawn in by the horror stories," says Maria Roeper, but then they start seeing how the whole system works. Students are also radicalized by their university's intransigence and by the realization that institutions only change when they're forced to do so. David Corson-Knowles, a Yale freshman and spokesperson for the Student Alliance to Reform Corporations (STARC), a national group founded at Yale, says he thinks his group will eventually convince the Yale Corporation -- which has the CEO of Procter & Gamble on its board -- to invest responsibly "because we're right." But in a group discussion in a coffee shop near campus, it's clear that students from the Student/Labor Action Coalition (SLAC) and the Yale chapter of United Students Against Sweatshops -- older groups that have been struggling with the administration for longer and use more confrontational tactics -- beg to differ. Yale SLAC activist Laurie Kimmington, a senior, says of the university's administrators, "They want to do nothing, as much as possible." Danielle Linzer, a Penn sophomore and STARC leader, admitted this might be the case. STARC, she acknowledged, had a "more conservative approach to reform" than United Students Against Sweatshops, but, she said, "we're a newer group, so we haven't yet been stalled the way they have."

All in all, it's impossible not to feel at least cautiously optimistic about this new movement. "We are training an entire generation to think differently about" -- pause -- "capitalism," says Kimmington. She glances at my notebook and at the STARC activists across the cafe table and giggles cheerfully. "Oops, maybe I shouldn't say that."

Liza Featherstone is a freelance journalist based in Brooklyn. This article originally appeared in The Nation, and is part of the Haywood Burns Community Activist Journalism series.