Since 2012, nationwide demonstrations, unprecedented in their scope for labor conflicts in the United States, have targeted the retail chain Walmart, the world’s largest private employer with over 2 million employees in 15 countries, 1.4 million of them in North America. They have since spread among at-will employees of service multinationals, particularly among the major fast-food chains throughout the world.
On November 23, 2012, the sales day after Thanksgiving known as Black Friday, when the retail giant records its highest sales figures of the year, over 400 employees, together with some one thousand members of advocacy groups and trade unions mobilized to demonstrate in U.S. 100 cities.
The actions were led by the employee association OUR Walmart (Organization United for Respect at Wal-Mart), an organization then funded by the main retail workers union, Union Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW). OUR Walmart had two stated ambitions. The first was worker-focused and aims to train workers and strengthen empowerment. The second revolved around organizing.
I followed two actions that embodied this dual ambition. The first, which took place on April 24, 2013 in the parking lot of a Walmart store in the Los Angeles suburb of Paramount, marshaled support for company employees fighting to win greater respect from the management, put an end to staff cutbacks and threats of retaliation. The second took place in November 2013 on Black Friday in front of two Chicago Walmart stores. For the second consecutive year, the demonstration was held simultaneously in nearly one hundred major cities across the United States. Both actions were organized by OUR Walmart with the help of local backers (faith leaders, progressive organizing and advocacy groups, activists).
Among union supporters is the Chicago Teachers Union which at the same time was protesting municipal budget cuts that would result in the closure of schools in poorer neighborhoods such as the South Side (Supercenter on North Avenue in Chicago).
A Walmart executive sent specially by headquarters in Bentonville, Arkansas to keep an eye on OUR Walmart actions alongside the police.
Since shopping centers emerged in the 1960s, one of the main struggles for retail trade unions has been to gain the right to approach workers without being arrested for trespassing. Fifty years later, union activists are still not allowed to approach employees on store premises or block the doors for customers coming and going.
After chanting slogans and distributing handbills to store customers under the eye and camera lens of the police and an executive who came especially from Arkansas, employees take turns expressing their demands before a line of smiling and unflappable managers. When the first ones to speak out hear their words chanted in unison by other striking “associates,” store managers systematically invite them to come in afterward for a person-to-person talk, emphasizing Walmart’s “Open-Door” policy.
The themes and tactics common to Occupy Wall Street, OUR Walmart and campaigns backed by service trade unions such as « Fight for 15 » and “Fast Food Forward” to denounce (“name and shame”) major corporations’ practices to the public have proven to be particularly galvanizing in sectors where low-wage jobs are the most plentiful. By raising awareness about the need for a living wage for themselves and their families, they managed to enlist the participation of most advocacy groups in the demonstration held the day after Thanksgiving.
8 a.m., some thirty employees and activists meet in the parking lot of the Walmart store in Paramount, six months after the big Black Friday demonstration. Gathered in a circle, each person introduces himself, adding a few words of encouragement for the group. Two clergymen were present. The one speaking tells me he was arrested and taken in last November. Officiating in the nearest parish, he ends a prayer of encouragement for the employees saying, “Don’t have fear. Jesus is on our side.” Faith leaders in neighboring communities who take part in the mobilization serve as important go-betweens with the African-American and Latino minorities. Given the difficulty for unions to directly approach employees, who have received anti-union training on the job, religious and territorial affiliations help attract new members.
Together with local UFCW members, “organizers” (union activists employed by UFCW to recruit and train new members for OUR Walmart) work year round to maintain their network, made up of worker defense organizations and religious congregations, by joining mobilizations in support of other workers and by taking an active part in religious celebrations and neighborhood events in the various local communities in the area. The presence of activists and unionists in the Black Friday demonstration, as demonstrators and spokespersons, confirms the close ties made among these advocacy groups and union organizations.
OUR Walmart defines itself as an independent organization for current and former Walmart employees. Through its organizers across the country and coordinated nationwide, it aims to recruit and empower employees in their relationship to their employer. The organization was created by UFCW, having realized that in the short term a traditional by-the-book strategy was doomed to fail. The Walmart corporation’s anti-union stance, its sheer size, its high-turnover workforce spread over thousands of stores have up to now enabled the management to isolate hotbeds of protest. The two prerequisites of the campaign were thus to work around the management’s anti-union tactics and to build ties among employees afraid of losing work hours or being fired at the slightest misstep.
Phil LeBeau, a reporter for CNBC, walks up the line, having trouble finding an employee to interview. Media actions like the one on Black Friday, closely controlled by organizers at the national level, are not the only ones undertaken. While they bring together more demonstrators, OUR Walmart employee members represent at best only 10 % of the participants. They also reveal the careful attention paid by the firm to the organization’s actions and the variety of means with which it responds. The management for instance set up a national Labor Relations Hotline and asked all the operations managers immediately to report any union activity and/or OUR Walmart-related activity. Furthermore, nearly three-quarters of the firm’s employees were on duty on Thanksgiving Day and the day after.
Photographs of local campaign figures such as Myron Byrne, a Walmart employee in Lakeview, Illinois, may appear on the organization’s handbills, in emails and in press releases, but communications, organizing tools and national actions are all drawn up and disseminated by cadres in Washington, DC who are in constant contact with local organizers. Handbills received from headquarters thus carry a message disseminated nationally and are subsequently regionalized by including a testimonial from a local employee.
While occupation of the workplace was not yet on the agenda (it would be in November 2014), arrests of employees and activists who had blocked traffic hark back to acts of civil disobedience and sit-down strikes used during the 1930s by the automobile workers as well as the young women employed by the Woolworth’s retail chain in Detroit, a little-known episode in the history of labor relations, during the 1936-1937 strikes.
Their backs to the chain of demonstrators, a line of cameramen and photographers wait while the local police handcuff protestors blocking traffic. Arrest of employees and activists, as the experience in Los Angeles a few months earlier showed, enable OUR Walmart to ensure greater local and national media coverage than protests in front of a store.
As of the end of 2012, demonstrations in large cities began targeting major fast-food multinationals (McDonald’s, Burger King, Wendy’s, KFC). They expressed similar demands and were planned by organizations (Fast Food Forward, Fight for $15) funded by the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) based on a model similar to OUR Walmart, although they gave the employees involved a greater role. Since 2012, such demonstrations focusing on raising the hourly minimum wage to $15 in low-paying jobs (whereas the federal minimum wage is $7.25) have multiplied and diversified to home-help personnel, contract airport workers, adjunct professors and federal contract workers, spreading across North America and beyond, affecting 33 countries on 6 continents.
However, OUR Walmart and Fight for $15 have had mixed results. After its new president, Marc Perrone, was elected in December 2014, UFCW decided to cut the campaign’s funding by 60% and concentrate its efforts on a more classic public relations campaign mainly consisting in advertising during the 2015 Democratic Party presidential debates. Facing a costly campaign, the new leadership had fired the campaign directors, underlining the fact that the organizing strategy might never yield new members. At the same time, Walmart announced that 5 stores in 4 states had to be closed for 6 months due to “plumbing problems,” laying off more than 2,000 employees on the day of the announcement. Two of these stores located in California and Florida proved to be among the earliest and most involved in the OUR Walmart protests since 2011. When the employees fired from these stores decided to go on a hunger strike in April, UFCW and its organizers no longer backed them. Since then, a new association, which has laid claim to the name “OUR Walmart,” has been created by these employees and former campaign directors to pursue the struggle and the organizing strategy. In 2016, more than 1 million Walmart hourly employees received pay increases. The minimum wage for employees hired before January 1, 2016 is at least $10/hour whereas the new entry-level employees start at $9/hour and have to go through a training program, contested by OUR Walmart, to move to $10/hour.
According to a National Employment Law Project (NELP) report in April 2016, “nearly 17 million workers throughout the country have earned wage increases through a combination of states and cities raising their minimum wages; executive orders by city, state, and federal leaders; and individual companies raising their pay scales.” This wave of action is historic in scale. After strikes in more than 300 cities in the US, “fifty-one states and cities have raised the minimum wage since 2012—more than ever before in U.S. history. States and cities are delivering larger raises for a broader segment of the workforce than the United States has seen in 50 years. While the new $15 state wages in California and New York will raise pay for more than one-third of workers, the last federal minimum wage increase to $7.25 in 2009 raised pay for only 10 percent of the workforce.”1 The fight to raise the minimum wage became a major theme in the presidential primaries in late 2015 and, after strong pressure from the growing Fight for $15 movement and Bernie Sanders supporters, Hillary Clinton made the $15-dollar threshold part of her platform in July 2016.
Mathieu Hocquelet, « OUR Walmart Mobilizations: Actors, Actions and Rhetoric, (Los Angeles and Chicago, 2013) », Revue Images et Sciences Sociales [Online], 2015 (n° 001). URL : http://iess.lamop.fr/001/index_en.php
Mathieu HOCQUELET is a post-doctoral fellow with the John F. Kennedy Institute for North American Studies at the Free University of Berlin and associate researcher at the Centre Maurice Halbwachs (EHESS, Paris).
His research focuses on changes in work and employment in low wage service industries.
His doctoral thesis, Les ressorts du consentement serviciel dans le nouveau capitalisme commercial : le cas de la grande distribution, defended at the end of 2012 under the supervision of Jean-Pierre Durand (Centre Pierre Naville, Université d’Evry), explores the relationship between motivations for worker consent, the strengthening of economic power and critical questioning of the regime of accumulation in global corporations with particularly high public exposure.
He is currently pursuing research in the sociology of work and social movements begun at the Centre Maurice Halbwachs focusing specifically on low-wage worker protests in the "Right-to-Work States."
Hocquelet Mathieu, « "Making Change at Walmart" : American Solidarity Unionism at a Service Multinational », first published in French Critique internationale 3/2014, n° 64, pp. 17-32, Translated by Cynthia Schoch. ⇒
Hocquelet Mathieu, « Mobiliser les employés de Walmart malgré les discours et pratiques du géant de la distribution : UFCW et OUR Walmart face à 50 ans d’antisyndicalisme.” [“Organizing Employees at the Giant Retailer: UFCW and OUR Walmart Confront a Fifty-Year Tradition of Anti-Union Discourse and Practices,”], Revue de l’IRES, no. 88, 2016, pp. 129-154 ⇒