By: Josh Eidelson
According to a Warehouse Workers United spokesperson, Mira Loma warehouse workers experienced a new wave of retaliation Tuesday. In response, the workers decided tonight to begin their strike a day early, at 8 am Pacific Time Wednesday. The strike will continue into Thursday, when workers will rally with supporters as originally planned.
Thursday, Wal-Mart warehouse workers are headed back to the picket line. At 8 am PST, twenty-some workers in Mira Loma, California, plan to launch a one-day walkout that could spread to more workers, including retail employees in Wal-Mart stores. Thursday’s strike will be the latest in an unprecedented wave of work stoppages throughout the retail giant’s US supply chain. It follows strikes by seafood workers in June, by warehouse workers in September, and by 160 retail workers in twelve states last month. It comes a week before Black Friday, the post-Thanksgiving shopping extravaganza that workers have pledged—barring concessions from the company—will bring their biggest disruptions yet. “Hopefully it will make a dent in their production…” said Raymond Castillo, “and it gets their attention, that we’re not playing around.” Castillo and other Mira Loma workers struck in September, and voted Sunday to do it again on Thursday. According to Castillo, workers started organizing because of unsafe and unsanitary conditions: crooked ramps caused serious injuries; workers’ drinking water came from a hose. The organizing brought retaliation, which inspired a strike, which drew more punishment. “Since we’ve all been retaliated against,” said Castillo, “it was a pretty easy decision for all of us to go back on strike.”
On paper, Castillo and his co-workers are employed by a Wal-Mart subcontractor, Warestaff. But because Wal-Mart is the beneficiary of all of his work, and the boss of his boss’ boss, Castillo says his conditions are all Wal-Mart’s fault. Wal-Mart does not agree. But Wisconsin Wal-Mart store worker Jackie Goebel does: “All of us that work for Wal-Mart, either on the retail end of it, or on the warehouse end of it, have the same issues.” Wal-Mart, the world’s largest private sector employer, has been entirely union-free in the United States since its founding in Arkansas fifty years ago. Wal-Mart’s cost-cutting and just-in-time logistics have revolutionized its industries—even for its unionized competitors. That’s made it an irresistible target for US unions, which have launched a series of campaigns against the company over the past two decades. But until last month, Wal-Mart had never seen workers at multiple US stores go on strike.
That changed October 4, when workers struck at nine southern California stores for one day; a two-day, twelve-state strike followed on October 9. While that ended with an announcement that employees would return to work to mobilize coworkers for Black Friday, the past few weeks haven’t been entirely strike-free. This month has already seen a walkout at an Ennis, Texas, Wal-Mart, and a sit-in and strike during the grand reopening of a store in Richmond, California. One of the Richmond strikers, Semetra Lee, said workers there were galvanized by retaliation and disrespect. When one worker tied a rope around his waist in an effort to pull a heavy object, said Lee, “our supervisor said to him, ‘Well, if you left it up to me, I would put it around your neck.” Wal-Mart did not respond to a request for comment. In past interviews, the company has dismissed the strikes as publicity stunts, the aggrieved workers as unrepresentative outliers and its labor antagonists as front groups for unions out to get a cut of workers’ paychecks.
Wal-Mart’s current insurrection is in part a testament to the power of example: eight Gulf Coast shrimp workers strike over alleged forced labor, and thus expand the sense of what’s possible for Wal-Mart warehouse workers, who in turn inspire retail coworkers they’ve never met. But it’s also the output of months of organizing by a set of union-backed groups: Warehouse Workers for Justice, a project of the Change to Win federation; the Warehouse Workers Organizing Committee, which is backed by the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America; and OUR Wal-Mart, the retail workers group closely tied to the United Food & Commercial Workers.
None of these groups is calling for union recognition, but it’s no secret that the UFCW’s future clout depends on finding some way to transform Wal-Mart’s standards, organize its employees, or both. OUR Wal-Mart and the warehouse workers groups have focused their demands on staffing, wages and benefits. But workers allege that Wal-Mart has responded to their efforts with the same hardball tactics it perfected in past anti-union campaigns. When nine Texas meat-cutters won a union election in 2000, Wal-Mart eliminated that position nationwide. When workers won a union election in Quebec in 2005, Wal-Mart shut down the entire store. Workers now allege legal intimidation, like mandatory “captive audience” meetings bashing OUR Wal-Mart, and illegal retaliation, like firing key supporters. Wal-Mart denies that it’s broken the law.
Such retaliation is the stated impetus for the current wave of strikes (under US law, striking over alleged crimes offers workers greater protection against being permanently replaced). Ending and reversing the retaliation is what OUR Wal-Mart says would be the minimum move necessary for Wal-Mart to avert a Black Friday reckoning. But with ten days to go, there’s no sign of any compromise on the horizon. In the first days after last month’s strikes, speculation centered on how Wal-Mart would respond. Would it bring down the hammer, braving bad press, legal exposure and worker outrage in order to chill the spreading strikes? Or would it hold back for fear of fanning the flames? When the Huffington Post reported a leaked internal memo urging all managers to comply with labor law during the strikes, some took that as a hopeful sign; others saw it as Wal-Mart creating a paper trail to defend itself against inevitable future investigations. One retail worker I talked to, a few days after he returned from the picket line, marveled that small-scale activism had brought him punishment, but striking so far hadn’t. But labor leaders say Wal-Mart’s forbearance didn’t last long. Dan Schlademan, a UFCW official involved in spearheading the campaign against Wal-Mart, charges that the strikes have been followed by a “definite increase” in retaliation against Wal-Mart workers: “A lot of threats, a number of terminations, people having their hours cut. Just the whole gamut.” Placerville, California, retail worker Barbara Collins Andridge and Mira Loma Warestaff employee Victor Caudillo both said their managers had slashed the hours of workers who went on strike. Warestaff worker David Garcia alleges that the subcontractor used an argument he had with a supervisor about a safety issue as a pretext to fire him for his leadership in the strike.
While Wal-Mart remains publicly dismissive, Schlademan said managers are doing whatever they can to discourage participation in the coming Black Friday strike, including telling workers that they’ll be fired if they don’t show up to work.
Successful anti-union campaigns often involve both “sticks” and “carrots”: blending fearsome authority and sudden generosity. As Matt Stoller has reported, recently-declassified Federal Reserve transcripts suggest that Wal-Mart boosted wages in response to the labor-backed campaigns of the mid-2000’s. Wal-Mart’s announcement last month that it would offer workers free heart and spine surgery looked like just such a carrot. But OUR Wal-Mart says that high-profile move was just cover for the company to ratchet workers’ healthcare in the opposite direction. Reuters reported Monday that Wal-Mart has informed workers that the number of hours required to qualify for insurance will rise from twenty-four to thirty a week, and workers’ premiums will rise by 8 to 36 percent. Wal-Mart counters that, when the elimination of high-premium plans is factored in, overall costs to workers will rise by just 4.4 percent. The juxtaposition—new largesse if your heart’s in danger, new obstacles to everyday insurance—echoes Wal-Mart’s recent approach to health care. In 2004, an essay in the conservative City Journal praised the company for “embracing a fundamental redefinition of health insurance as protection from catastrophic illnesses that can financially run employees, rather than a benefit meant to pay for every health-care bill.”
Andridge said the premium hike forced her to drop coverage and enroll herself and her kids in state-provided insurance. “I made a real hard decision,” she said, “and hopefully the right one,” though it meant “a lot of swallowing my pride.” OUR Wal-Mart members also cried foul when Wal-Mart recently announced its earliest-ever Black Friday opening time: 8 pm on Thanksgiving. OUR Wal-Mart activist Goebel warned that for workers required to arrive hours earlier as a result, the holiday “will be totally consumed by Wal-Mart, and their need to boost their bottom line.” Goebel, who didn’t go on strike last month, said that news made her more likely to walk off the job next week.
At the same time, Wal-Mart workers say they’ve already won redress for some local grievances: a schedule posted on time, an unsafe ramp replaced, an elderly greeter allowed to sit on a stool. The most dramatic concessions have been made to Wal-Mart warehouse workers, not retail. A contractor at a Wal-Mart-owned distribution center in Elwood, Illinois, agreed to rehire four fired workers, and to pay thirty-eight workers their full wages for the three weeks they spent on strike.
And while Wal-Mart insisted managers would only meet individually, not collectively, with retail workers who last month converged on its Bentonville headquarters, it took a different tack towards visiting warehouse workers. WWU says Wal-Mart Vice President Tom Mars took a meeting with three of its members, perhaps Wal-Mart’s first such meeting with workers from a labor organization in the United States. According to Garcia, one of three workers who participated, Mars “said he wasn’t going to make no commitments” but “he was writing everything down” and “asking for a lot of details.” Still, Garcia said, “to me, it was just another meeting until I see results.”
That disparity could simply reflect Wal-Mart’s greater comfort meeting with workers who, on paper, aren’t its employees. But it may suggest the disproportionate power warehouse workers have to disrupt the company’s just-in-time supply chain. As the historian Nelson Lichtenstein observes in his book The Retail Revolution, the company no longer thinks of its distribution centers as “warehouses” at all—instead, the chain is designed so that the goods are perpetually on the move. Consider that according to organizers, 70 percent of Wal-Mart’s imported product travels through the Elwood distribution center, and it’s easy to imagine why, of all of Wal-Mart’s recent strikers, the thirty-eight who work there would be first to win their demands. Castillo said he expects that some retail workers will join his co-workers’ strike Thursday, making it the latest case of joint action at multiple points in Wal-Mart’s supply chain. He described the coming strike as part of the progression towards Black Friday: “We were the ones that started it, and now they want to kick it off with us starting it again, and make it a big old trend.”
Andridge, who was one of four employees to strike at her Placerville store last month, said she expects more co-workers to join her next week. “I had a lot of coworkers come up to me and say, ‘You’re so brave, that’s so amazing,’” she said. “And I just let them know that it’s covered by federal law. I have the right to do this, and so do you. It’s just a matter of us standing up and doing it together.” According to Schlademan, organizers won’t know how big the Black Friday action will be until it happens, because it’s being driven by “open-sourced organizing” via the Internet and conference calls, as well as face-to-face conversations at work and at home. “All we’re seeing everywhere,” he said, “is places where we don’t have people on the ground, people are stepping up and taking action, and we think this is going to escalate.” Workers have promised flash mobs, sit-ins and leafleting as well as walk-outs. Ruining Wal-Mart’s Black Friday would be a tall order. While it’s a top day for retail sales, the busiest season for the distribution centers will already have passed. And with only one in every 10,000 retail workers having struck so far, even a tenfold increase might not shutter a single store. But with backing from local labor federations, Occupy activists and groups like the National Organization of Women, warehouse and retail workers could still land a Black Friday blow: warding off potential customers, injecting workplace issues into the usual “long lines”/ “hot products” news coverage, and emboldening more workers to face down the largest employer in the world.
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