The Nation’s Josh Eidelson reports on the latest effort by organized labor to crack the so-far-impervious-to-unionization stance of Walmart:
Following a five-day organizing training and strategy summit in Birmingham, members of the labor group OUR Walmart will announce a plan to send civil rights movement–style caravans of workers from around country to converge at the retail giant’s June 7 annual shareholder meeting.
Walmart workers active in OUR Walmart, a non-union organization backed by the United Food & Commercial Workers union, plan to make the announcement on a video live-stream from Birmingham at 4 pm Central Time today. Several days before the shareholder gathering, caravans will leave from several cities around the country, stopping along the way to pick up workers and supporters, and to meet with community activists. OUR Walmart’s plans for the next month also include confrontations between Walmart employees and members of the company’s board of directors.
Los Angeles Walmart worker Tsehai Almaz told The Nation that after visiting the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute and meeting with local clergy, she and other OUR Walmart leaders were inspired to follow the example of the 1961 freedom riders. “I feel like we’re facing many of the same issues,” said Almaz, “even though it’s not necessarily about race — this time it’s about respect. And being able to feed our families, and having good working conditions.” Almaz, a support manager who’s worked for the company for about a year, said that she was driven to join the campaign after she and several co-workers were needlessly injured in a rash of workplace accidents in her store. (Emphasis added.)
Further down in the piece, Eidelson offers some insight on Big Labor’s strategy:
Historian Nelson Lichtenstein, author of "The Retail Revolution: How Wal-Mart Created a Brave New World of Business," expressed doubt that OUR Walmart could force Walmart to sit across the table from its employees: “They aren’t going to say, OK let’s sit down. We know that.” However, he said, sufficient sustained pressure could establish de facto “arms-length negotiations” in which OUR Walmart members made public demands, and Walmart, without crediting the critics, made concessions in order to tamp down discontent.
Lichtenstein, who directs the Center for the Study of Work, Labor, and Democracy at the University of California Santa Barbara, said that the OUR Walmart campaign so far appears “pretty staff-driven,” and that he doubts it has developed the “kind of self-sustained, internally generated organizing momentum” that would be necessary for actions to spread to thousands of employees. But Lichtenstein said that given the risk of retaliation, the willingness of activist workers to collectively and publicly make demands of the company is a “breakthrough” which will inspire others to follow. “It opens up the sense of democratic discourse,” said Lichtenstein, “in a company that really does have an authoritarian culture.”