Why Walmart, Why Now?

Labor historian Nelson Lichtenstein sheds light on the new surge of Walmart protests.

By Micah Uetricht

For years, the world’s retail behemoth, Walmart, has seemed impervious to organizing attempts. Unions, specifically the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW), have attempted to organize retail workers at the company—long known for both its low prices and poverty wages&mdash [RETURN TO ARTICLE]

  • Reader Comments

    Unions should try this with all the foreign manufacturers in the US (and especially those that are union in their home countries and elsewhere).

    Posted by WhyNot on Oct 10, 2012 at 1:25 PM

    These are brave folks in a shattered economy. Or perhaps just up against the wall. I don’t see a good outcome here, though I wish it were the beginning of something big with regards to the plight of these workers.

    A spark can lead to flame. Let’s hope and support striking Walmart workers!

    Posted by JohnT on Oct 11, 2012 at 11:57 AM

    “how important it is..”? It is $92Billion-Wamart’s-Deep-Six would refuse to pay their workers before themselves is total theft. Try doing that to them?

    Posted by Rdzkz on Oct 13, 2012 at 10:53 AM

    I will be totally amazed if Walmart does not retaliate, but in a very sophisticated.  The best and most committed of the strikers will be fired gradually.  Some good leaders will be bought off and promoted, others will be allowed to keep working after seeing their committed leaders go out the door.  It will be difficult, if not impossible, to win ULP’s against Walmart when they have fired only some of the strikers while promoting others and leaving others alone.

    Posted by Gene Debs on Oct 13, 2012 at 2:31 PM

    Boycott Walmart until they put a Made In America section in every store.

    Posted by Gosto Tothiwim on Oct 13, 2012 at 3:12 PM

    Why have shoppers never “gone on strike” simply through an organized national sympathy boycott of Walmart for a given period of,say, a week or more? Are people in the U.S. so callous and obsessed about low prices that they will sacrifice the health and well being of their fellow Americans who work under the deplorable conditions that enables Walmart to sell merchandise so cheaply in the first place ?

    Posted by rblevy on Oct 13, 2012 at 9:53 PM

    This seems way overdue maybe because of the attraction of lower prices, hiring of people who saw no better future (i.e., the mom and pop stores Wal*Mart has put out of business).  The impact a business of this size and the control they have on the workers and the economy (the sexual discrimination lawsuit being tossed out on technicalities, the change in the “balance of trade” exemplified by west coast ports) is a perfect example of capitalism and the (ultimate) profit motive gone very wrong.  Occupy Wal*Mart!

    Posted by Jack Facilitator on Oct 14, 2012 at 3:23 AM

    I agree Walmart does not treat it’s employees right with wages and other areas too but no one forces people to work for them.  Get another job if you don’t like it there.  I shop someplace else because I don’t like the way Walmart treats me as a customer.

    Posted by Frances Wood Mayfield on Oct 15, 2012 at 9:16 AM

    Just because we poor to middle class income brackets have to buy at the Walmart stores because of low prices does not make us callous or obsessed,  we have to watch every penny we spend, therefore go to Walmart.  The grocery stores in the smaller communities cannot compete with their prices.  I don’t even buy clothes at Walmart, I buy at Goodwill, thrift stores for clothing or do without., but cannot do without food to survive.

    Posted by Eleanor on Oct 15, 2012 at 8:04 PM

    As long as I can possibly afford to do so, and maybe even if I can’t, I will gladly pay more than shop at Walmart.  Allowing any company, in any industry, to become as powerful as Walmart, is bad for the economy and bad public policy, all the way around.

    Posted by ORAXX on Oct 16, 2012 at 6:44 AM

    “Instead of doing this, Walmart shut the store down.”

    Is that all it takes to get rid of Walmart?  How awesome would it be if Walmart started shutting down stores all over the continent because workers started to wake up?

    Maybe we would get decent-paying jobs back.  Maybe more money would stay in the local economy instead of being shipped off to Walmart headquarters and moved out of the country.  Maybe it would free up some room for local merchants to open stores and we would have downtowns again. Maybe our tax dollars would no longer be spent subsidizing their profit margins and could be used instead to help the needy or save the earth, educate our kids, or otherwise benefit humanity.

    I don’t shop at Walmart (never have) and I think the world would be a better place if they went out of existence.  But the fact is, they WON’T shut down stores if workers take action in multiple locations simultaneously.  It would end the company.

    That’s the power that Walmart workers (and other retail workers) have.  The company CAN’T just shut down stores.  They CAN’T move overseas or otherwise “outsource” the work.  If they do, their company dies.  As soon as workers realize this, maybe they will take a stand and demand to be treated like human beings; and even demand that they be allowed to keep a larger share of the profits that THEIR WORK creates. 

    Without their workers, the Walton family is nothing more than the owner/operators of a local dime-store. It’s high time that their employees woke up to that reality and forced the Waltons to start sharing the wealth.

    Posted by chaysayd on Oct 17, 2012 at 10:48 AM

    This is a very good question.  The problem is that the “design” of social movements has been compromised by an intellectual vacuum of sorts on the part of various social movement “architects.”  For a redress of this in part, go here: http://www.globalteachin.com/t…

    Posted by Jonathan Feldman on Oct 18, 2012 at 5:49 AM

    A number of stories have been ignored in the long saga of Walmart’s anti-unionism.  For example:

    1.  Why was the UFCW the only union in the AFL-CIO to try to organize Walmart?  Perhaps the UFCW just couldn’t find the correct formula for organizing those workers.  Or perhaps the Walmart workers have a negative view of the UFCW.  The AFL-CIO might have better success at organizing Walmart if 10 of its unions were trying to organize that company—though not at the same stores, of course.  One of those unions might well hit upon a successful organizing strategy.  In any case,  over time, 10 unions could wear Walmart down in a way that one union can’t.  I would guess that if one of those unions did organize a single Walmart, nearby Walmarts would raise their wages within a few weeks.

    2.  Now that the UFCW has seceded from the AFL-CIO to join a rival federation, why doesn’t the AFL-CIO create an AFL-CIO Retail Workers Union, which could compete with the UFCW in various efforts to organize unorganized workers in the retail sector.  Including the Walmart workers.  This is what the AFL did when the CIO unions pulled out back in ‘35.  Why not do it now?  They could start by forming a WALMART Directly Affiliated Local Union or a WWOC (“Walmart Workers Organizing Committee”). 

    3.  Why doesn’t one of the unaffiliated independent unions (unions that belong to neither the AFL-CIO nor it rival, CTW) try to organize Walmart? 

    3.  Plenty of unions appear to be doomed, victims of technological changes that eliminate their membership.  Perhaps they could save their organization from going the way of the Grand Army of the Republic or the Anti-Saloon League by trying to organize workers in a growing sector, i.e., the big box stores.

    All of these ideas have their flaws, but it is time to try something genuinely new.  The UFCW, is not really a bad union at all.  It’s a pretty good union, really, but it has nothing new to offer in the continuing battle to organize the Walmart workers.

    www.dogcanteen.com

    Posted by Mark on Oct 25, 2012 at 8:39 PM

    I have NEVER shopped nor will I EVER shop at Wal-Mart. This has NOTHING to do with money. I have no money but I am educated and I can find clothes at Thrift Stores. To sell this country to China is the karma those who do shop at Wal-Mart will have to live and die.

    Posted by Guest on Oct 27, 2012 at 8:42 PM

    The employees have gotten feed up. This company will open store A, and then store B less than 3 miles away but wont pay their workers a living wage. For less than half of what it costs to operate store B, they could have paid their workers at store A, an living wage.  Meanwhile, the employees earn so little they have to get food stamps, Medicaid, and or public housing which cost the tax payers. This is unpatriotic and one of the reasons this country is going bankrupt. Walmart represents corporate greed at its absolute worst.

    The employees have gotten feed up. This company will open store A, and then store B less than 3 miles away but wont pay their workers a living wage. For less than half of what it costs to operate store B, they could have paid their workers at store A, an living wage.  Meanwhile, the employees earn so little they have to get food stamps, Medicaid, and or public housing which cost the tax payers. This is unpatriotic and one of the reasons this country is going bankrupt. Walmart represents corporate greed at its absolute worst.

    Posted by Sedwithers0126 on Oct 31, 2012 at 10:39 AM

    I think we will be getting rid of our walmart store in alma mi. soon. We are getting a new meyiers store and so many people have commented they will switch. The meat is overpriced and the variety of products in the store is pathitic.

    Posted by Garry Ebright on Nov 15, 2012 at 12:29 PM