OUR Walmart Relaunches Its Campaign To Beat the World Retail Giant

David Moberg September 17, 2015

(Walmart Image via Shutterstock)

After four years as a grow­ing, thriv­ing voice of work­ers at Wal­mart, the Orga­ni­za­tion Unit­ed for Respect at Wal­mart (OUR Wal­mart) re-launched itself on Thursday. 

Orig­i­nal­ly a legal­ly inde­pen­dent, non-union work­er orga­ni­za­tion that the Unit­ed Food and Com­mer­cial Work­ers found­ed and fund­ed, OUR Wal­mart will now have a dif­fer­ent, still to-be-defined tie to the UFCW — which will con­tin­ue to pub­li­cize how Wal­mart as an employ­er and a busi­ness pres­ence with­in most Amer­i­can com­mu­ni­ties has pushed down work stan­dards and often tak­en from com­mu­ni­ties as much as it contributes. 

The re-launched orga­ni­za­tion will rely more heav­i­ly instead on a new coali­tion of 20 part­ners, such as Nation­al People’s Action, Demos, Work­ing Fam­i­lies Par­ty, Inter­faith Work­ers Jus­tice, Col­or of Change, Jobs With Jus­tice, Envi­ron­men­tal Action and oth­er groups, in addi­tion to seek­ing fund­ing from oth­er sources, includ­ing foun­da­tions such as ARCA, that are not part of the for­mal labor movement.

Its goals remain much the same as before: $15 an hour min­i­mum pay; full-time, con­sis­tent hours; no more unfair coach­ings” (a Wal­mart form of dis­ci­pline) and ter­mi­na­tions; and action by the com­pa­ny to improve racial jus­tice and women’s rights and to address cli­mate change.”

Like­wise, it will not attempt to gain recog­ni­tion as a union. OUR Wal­mart reg­u­lar­ly issues a dis­claimer that its pur­pose is to help Wal­mart employ­ees deal with the com­pa­ny about labor rights and stan­dards but that it has no intent to have Wal­mart rec­og­nize or bar­gain with OUR Wal­mart as the rep­re­sen­ta­tive of its employees.”

Wal­mart has a long his­to­ry of swift, heavy-hand­ed action against any attempt by work­ers to orga­nize a union, includ­ing clos­ing stores or store depart­ments that vot­ed in favor of a union and send­ing in anti-union spe­cial­ists from head­quar­ters to over­whelm any incip­i­ent orga­niz­ing. That prompt­ed a search for alter­na­tive ways for work­ers to come together.

Orig­i­nal­ly our think­ing was that labor has giv­en up lots of its pow­er by liv­ing inside the idea that the only way work­ers could have a union is if the employ­er per­mits it or the gov­ern­ment bless­es it,” Dan Schlade­man, a co-direc­tor who helped to start OUR Wal­mart, said in an inter­view with In These Times this week. We threw that con­cept out. We weren’t going to wait for the gov­ern­ment or Wal­mart. The goal now is a work­er-sup­port­ed, sus­tain­able orga­ni­za­tion of and for workers.”

Until they com­plete a re-assess­ment of their inter­nal orga­ni­za­tion, OUR Wal­mart will con­tin­ue to be run with a board con­sist­ing of five work­ers and the two direc­tors, with the advice of a larg­er coun­cil of work­ers and depen­dence on not only 10 cur­rent full-time orga­niz­ers but also a net­work of lead­ers” in more than 2000 Wal­mart stores in every state and mem­bers who pay $5 a month in dues. 

Work­ers par­tic­i­pate in peer-to-peer” net­works on the inter­net, main­ly through Face­book. What­ev­er its lim­i­ta­tions, this loose arrange­ment seems to pro­vide more oppor­tu­ni­ty for direct work­er-to-work­er com­mu­ni­ca­tion beyond the imme­di­ate work­place than the usu­al union struc­ture that is more medi­at­ed by elect­ed officials.

Schlade­man says the group will build out from this peer-to-peer net­work foun­da­tion to sup­port work­ers with com­mon, press­ing prob­lems that are less imme­di­ate­ly relat­ed to the work­place (such as prob­lems with debt, com­mon among the company’s low-paid asso­ciates”), train­ing lead­ers more about work­er rights (match­ing the lev­el of union stew­ards), and inves­ti­gat­ing new tech­no­log­i­cal pos­si­bil­i­ties beyond its Face­book communication. 

OUR Wal­mart, Schlade­man says, will also try to learn more from the expe­ri­ence of com­mu­ni­ty orga­ni­za­tions as well as from labor unions and non-union work­er orga­ni­za­tions (such as many of its new part­ners, includ­ing the Restau­rant Oppor­tu­ni­ties Cen­ter and the Nation­al Domes­tic Work­ers Alliance). He thinks OUR Wal­mart may also be able to learn from work­er groups, includ­ing unions, which oper­ate under chal­leng­ing con­di­tions, such as where it is dif­fi­cult to win major­i­ty sup­port or anti-work­er laws block tra­di­tion­al orga­niz­ing to win contracts.

We want to take the best of both labor and com­mu­ni­ty orga­ni­za­tions to devel­op into a sin­gu­lar orga­ni­za­tion that will be trans­for­ma­tive … for OUR Wal­mart and for work­er orga­ni­za­tions in this coun­try,” he said.

Com­pared to most unions, Schlade­man envi­sions OUR Wal­mart as rely­ing less on staff and more on self-orga­ni­za­tion of work­ers by work­ers, some of whom may func­tion as part-time paid orga­niz­ers. Also, since Wal­mart con­tin­ues to fire work­ers who are lead­ers or fight for rights of fel­low asso­ciates,” OUR Wal­mart wants to be able to turn such attacks into ways of strength­en­ing the orga­ni­za­tion and work­ers’ resis­tance to Wal­mart fear campaigns.

Our main goal when a leader is fired is to sup­port them in their fight to get their job back,” he said. There are fired lead­ers with oth­er jobs, some work­ing on the cam­paign, and there’s a hard­ship fund for three months. Our goal is to turn every fired work­er into an organizer.”

Despite Walmart’s con­tin­ued attacks on the group and its sup­port­ers, OUR Wal­mart has not only sur­vived but grown. Wal­mart has been in full-on attack mode, but OUR Wal­mart sur­vives and moves beyond where it was,” Schlade­man said. Each attack made the orga­ni­za­tion stronger.”

Schlade­man esti­mates that the com­pa­ny has fired around 100 OUR Wal­mart lead­ers and tried to neu­tral­ize crit­i­cisms by spend­ing large sums — $2.4 bil­lion in FY 2014 alone — on pub­lic rela­tions and adver­tis­ing trum­pet­ing Wal­mart as a great place to work. 

Nev­er­the­less, Wal­mart has had to make con­ces­sions to the pres­sure upon the busi­ness, most­ly from OUR Wal­mart. It is in the process of enact­ing a series of wage hikes, start­ing with boosts to $9 an hour this year and $10 next year for a half-mil­lion of its low­est paid work­ers (out of 1.4 mil­lion), changes in sched­ul­ing pol­i­cy, more accom­mo­dat­ing preg­nan­cy poli­cies (after OUR Walmart’s Respect the Bump” cam­paign).

But a new study from one of OUR Walmart’s think-tank part­ners, Demos, finds that even with the promised future raise to $10 an hour min­i­mum, work­ers in every state would not earn enough to sup­port the basic needs of even a sin­gle adult at the company’s nor­mal full-time” sched­ule of 34 hours per week. Yet Wal­mart con­tin­ues a stock buy-back scheme that has expend­ed tens of bil­lions of dol­lars in recent years and has accom­plished noth­ing but enrich a core group of shareholders.

How has OUR Wal­mart sur­vived in the face of such a rich, pow­er­ful and hos­tile employ­er? Main­ly with its flex­i­ble orga­ni­za­tion that work­ers iden­ti­fy as their own and the per­se­ver­ance of lead­ers like Venanzi Luna, 36, an eight-year employ­ee at what until recent­ly was one of OUR Walmart’s strongest redoubts, a store in Pico Rivera, California.

Dur­ing her four years as a leader, man­age­ment dis­ci­plined her fre­quent­ly, but she helped lead the first strike at a Wal­mart store as well as many oth­er actions. They play dirty,” she said. You have to fight them all the way.” Part­ly that starts with edu­ca­tion. Peo­ple ask, How do you fight Wal­mart?’ I said, With knowl­edge. OUR Wal­mart gave me a lot of under­stand­ing about how to fight for my rights,” includ­ing turn­ing to unfair labor prac­tice charges before the Nation­al Labor Rela­tions Board.

The Pico Rivera work­ers are again turn­ing to the law as well as protests to con­test the recent short notice clo­sure of the store (and four oth­ers with an active OUR Wal­mart group) sup­pos­ed­ly for plumb­ing prob­lems.” They laid off all of us,” Luna said. They told us they will re-open in Novem­ber but are not re-hir­ing any­one who has spo­ken up. That’s retal­i­a­tion for exer­cis­ing our rights. This is what real­ly hap­pens. A lot of peo­ple don’t believe it. For us it’s about asso­ciates fight­ing what Wal­mart does to us every sin­gle day. It takes a toll. Nobody should be treat­ed like that. We’re not going to be stop fight­ing for what’s right. We asso­ciates have the abil­i­ty to make Wal­mart bet­ter and make it treat work­ers with respect.”

For 15 years, Cyn­thia Mur­ray has worked at a Lau­rel, MD, Wal­mart store, where fel­low asso­ciates work hard, as she does, but man­age­ment abus­es them in ways that hurt not just the work­ers and the com­mu­ni­ty but even Wal­mart itself, she says. A par­tic­i­pant in ear­li­er cam­paigns at Wal­mart, includ­ing a quick­ly quashed union dri­ve, she became one of the founders of OUR Walmart.

Work­ers need an orga­ni­za­tion, she says, and OUR Wal­mart is what Wal­mart work­ers need now. It’s a work­er-led orga­ni­za­tion,” she says. It’s the voice of work­ers inside the com­pa­ny — of and for the work­ers. We know what they have to say.”

Will OUR Wal­mart some day become a union with a con­tract and the stan­dard struc­tures and strate­gies of most Amer­i­can unions? Schlade­man, as an orga­niz­er for ACTWU (cloth­ing and tex­tile union) and the Ser­vice Employ­ees (in their Jus­tice for Jan­i­tors cam­paigns), knows the strengths – and rec­og­nizes some weak­ness­es – of the model.

Where will this end up?” he mus­es. That’s a ques­tion of time. Now there’s a need for orga­ni­za­tion, and where that will lead is unknown. Now work­ers need a voice, rights at work, and the orga­ni­za­tion that OUR Wal­mart brings. My sense is that as you build orga­ni­za­tions and work­ers learn the impor­tance of orga­ni­za­tion and how to fight, they’ll nev­er give that up. Where it goes, I don’t know.”

David Moberg, a senior edi­tor of In These Times, has been on the staff of the mag­a­zine since it began pub­lish­ing in 1976. Before join­ing In These Times, he com­plet­ed his work for a Ph.D. in anthro­pol­o­gy at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Chica­go and worked for Newsweek. He has received fel­low­ships from the John D. and Cather­ine T. MacArthur Foun­da­tion and the Nation Insti­tute for research on the new glob­al economy.

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