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Showdown at WalMart on Black Friday: Solidarity Not Quite Forever

Gary North
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Oct. 15, 2012

Back in 1956, I first heard Pete Seeger sing "Solidarity Forever." He is still singing. But forever seems to have been cut a little short.

The American labor union movement is in its death throes in the private sector. I did not expect to see this in my youth.

On Friday, November 23 -- Black Friday -- WalMart workers are threatening to walk out if WalMart does not agree to stop retaliating against union organizers. But they have yet to prove that WalMart has in fact retaliated.

This is mission impossible.

This is a suicide mission.

This is how Forbes assesses the prospects.

The first-ever strike by Walmart workers took place October 9, as workers in 12 cities walked off their jobs, calling for the retailer to address wages and cease retaliation against workers who seek to organize. The group, OUR Walmart, is a labor-backed organization that advocates on behalf of Walmart's workers (OUR stands for Organization United for Respect).

Walmart workers walked off their jobs in Chicago, Dallas, the DC area, Miami, Orlando, Seattle, and across California and then descended on Walmart's annual meeting with investment analysts to plead their case. And while that may sound impressive in scope, the entire strike included just 88 workers, reports, and 100 arriving at Walmart headquarters in Bentonville, Ark.

Did this get any media coverage? Not that I saw. It's not easy for the media to cover the walkout of 88 workers in 12 cities. Think of the problem facing CBS Evening News. It asks regional CBS affiliates to go to a local WalMart parking lot. The parking lot is full. There are no picketers. There are no spokesmen. There is no one handing out leaflets.

And now workers are threatening to disrupt the biggest shopping day of the But could it hurt Black Friday? Not likely. Walmart is the largest private employer in the U.S. It employs approximately 1.4 million associates. Tuesday's strike had less than 100. Compare that to the stadium of cheering Walmart employees present at its annual shareholder meeting by all accounts genuinely happy with their jobs.

The prospect of a Black Friday showdown makes for good press and may help advance OUR Walmart's cause, but Black Friday will likely go on as scheduled -- door busters, brawls and all.

It may make good press. It does not make good TV.

Here is how the liberal Salon assesses it.

One day after Walmart employees in twelve states launched a major strike, today workers issued an ultimatum to the retail giant: Stop retaliating against workers trying to organize, or the year's most important shopping day, the Friday after Thanksgiving, will see the biggest disruptions yet. The announcement comes as 200 workers -- some of them currently striking -- have converged in the Walmart's Bentonville, Arkansas hometown outside the company's annual investors meeting. It offers a new potential challenge to Walmart, and a new test for OUR Walmart, the labor-backed organization that's pulled off the first two multi-store U.S. strikes in Walmart history.

An ultimatum. I see. As in, "If you don't stop, we'll. . . . We'll. . . ." Do what? And who, precisely, are "we"?

If Walmart doesn't address OUR Walmart's demands, said striking worker Colby Harris, from Dallas, "We will make sure that Black Friday is memorable for them." He said that would includes strikes, leafleting to customers, and "flash mobs."

Flash mobs? Does he mean the organized hit-and-run crowds of ghetto teenagers that loot local 7-11 stores? Or does he mean the singing kind that appear out of nowhere in shopping malls? I can hear it now: "Solidarity Forever."

Harris was joined on a press call announcing the deadline by leaders of the National Consumers League, the National Organization of Women, and the Labor Council for Latin American Advancement, three of the national organizations that have pledged support for the workers' efforts. Absent a resolution, said NOW President Terri O'Neill, NOW members will join Walmart workers outside stores on Black Friday to ask customers "whether they really want to spend their dollars on a company that treats workers this way."

Dan Schlademan, a UFCW official, told Salon that to avert the Black Friday actions, "at a minimum" Walmart would need "to end the retaliation," including reversing the firings of workers allegedly singled out for their activism.

According to OUR Walmart, 88 total workers have been on strike since yesterday at 28 stores in twelve states. The largest group was in Dallas, Texas; others struck stores in Miami, Orlando, Seattle, Chicago, Missouri, Minnesota, Maryland, Kentucky, and California. They followed 70 who struck in southern California last Thursday. And as Salon has reported, this week's and last week's store strikes follow two strikes by about 70 Walmart warehouse workers employed by contractors or sub-contractors during the past month.

"I don't think this will be a flash in the pan," Chris Rhomberg, a strike expert at Fordham University, said last night. "If they've been able to achieve this level of coordination, I imagine we'll see more."

I think it's a flash in the pan.

I think it will be a wake before the body is interred.

Whenever an activist group pulls off a dramatic action, but doesn't win immediate concessions, the challenge is how to escalate. After last week's historic strike, OUR Walmart escalated this week by striking in more stores, in more states, for at least one day longer (and counting).

No one noticed. It's hard for the organizers of an historic event when no one notices.

The Black Friday deadline represents additional forms of escalation: issuing an ultimatum, targeting the retail giant on the busiest sales day of the year, with pledges of stepped-up involvement both from Walmart workers and from allied national groups.

No one is going to notice on Black Friday, either.

Given the fierce competition and outsized media attention devoted to Black Friday shoppers, the action could have a greater impact on Walmart's brand and its bottom line. But it carries a risk: while strikes are significant even without shutting down stores, healthy Black Friday revenue for Walmart could be spun as a consumer rebuke to the strikers.

In a sea of Black Friday shoppers, who will notice the absent WalMart employees? How does the newsroom video editing guy make this appear to be an historic event?

Expect other forms of escalation as well: as Salon reported yesterday, the global federation UNI has promised "joint actions" by Walmart workers internationally, and three leaders of a June strike at the Walmart supplier C.J.'s Seafood plan to organize other guest workers in Walmart's supply chain. Meanwhile, Walmart's efforts to expand into urban areas have hit another snag, with the company dropping plans for a Denver store weeks after failing to secure a location in East New York. This morning, I was on Democracy Now! (video below) with warehouse worker Mike Compton, who said to expect "a lot of sit-ins and a lot of walk-outs" at stores.

I love it! "Democracy Now!" Who has heard of "Democracy Now!"?

Their demands are limited.

OUR Walmart isn't calling for union recognition. But members allege that Walmart has still responded to their organizing with a classic union-busting campaign: Threatening and punishing workers for organizing (this is illegal, and Walmart denies it's happened) and mandatory meetings bashing OUR Walmart (these are legal, and Walmart doesn't deny them). OUR Walmart and its members have filed dozens of charges against the company with the National Labor Relations Board.

This is not even a tempest in a teapot. It's more like a belch in a hurricane.

How much bigger can these strikes get? OUR Walmart claims thousands of dues-paying members. Schlademan said these two work stoppages were "a strike of leaders." Each of those 150 strikers, according to Schladerman, will mobilize more of their co-workers for Black Friday once they're back at work in the stores. . . .

The Walmart store workers who've gone on strike so far constitute only about one out of every 10,000 of Walmart's 1.4 million US employees. But by walking off the job together, they've sent a signal about their deep discontent, and their capacity for collective action, that no rally or press conference could. That action has many audiences: customers, investors, politicians, reporters, and -- perhaps most significant at this stage -- fellow Walmart workers waiting to see what happens next.

One out of 10,000. I see it now. Solidarity forever.

If your local media cover this, send me a link. I want to see how it is covered by the media. My guess is that it will be ignored. The liberal media will not want to highlight another example of the utter futility of private-sector unions.

In a way, it will be an important symbolic event. It will be like those PATCO members who struck in 1981. They were going to shut down air traffic. They didn't. Reagan fired all of them who refused to cross the picket lines. But at least that strike got media coverage. I don't think this one will.

As for me, if I remember, I will go to WalMart and buy something. Maybe a Subway sandwich. That is just about all I buy at WalMart. Maybe a few grapes. I like frozen grapes. But I must maintain a show of solidarity. If I remember.

I'll be thinking of Pete.

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