"The emancipation of the working class must be the work of the working class itself."
- Karl Marx & Friedrich Engels, 1879
On November 6, an electoral coalition made up mostly of working class Americans prevented the election victory of a reactionary party and slate of candidates whose policies would have wreaked untold misery on working people, including the poor, and wrecked the macro-economy as well. But the working class's real political move this November has occurred not in voting booths but in Walmart parking lots across the country, where Walmart workers protested their wages and working conditions, even as, halfway around the world in Bangladesh, more than 100 textile workers making clothing for Walmart were killed by a fire caused by unsafe working conditions.
We have global capitalism, but have we a global working class or not?
The ongoing grassroots labor activism at Walmart in the U.S. reminds us that while the election is over the class struggle is not, and that class politics moves now from the voting booth to the workplace and the streets. For any Progressive whose political imagination extends beyond the narrow ideological confines of today's two-party discourse, that is good news indeed. For those of us who consider ourselves socialists or radicals, it is essential, because those confines have rendered electoral politics basically irrelevant to advancing working class interests, as opposed merely to defending them.
Part I: What's Going On?
Starting in June, Walmart workers have unleashed an unprecedented wave of labor unrest that has shaken the retail behemoth and its global supply chain. The ongoing protests reached one peak on so-called "Black Friday," when 1,000 strikes and protests were held across the country and at least 500 Walmart workers walked off their jobs, making it the largest U.S. strike in the history of Walmart.
The Black Friday walkout was organized by the "Organization United for Respect at Wal-Mart" (OUR Walmart), a year-old group of Walmart employees sponsored by the United Food and Commercial Workers union (UFCW). OUR Walmart and its allies the Warehouse Workers United Union and the National Guestworker Alliance are pushing for an end to unsafe working conditions, a living wage, benefits, and an end to corporate retaliation against employees for organizing activity.
Notice what is missing: There is no demand, or even request, for the formation of a union. Whatever the current Walmart activism is, it is not a union organizing drive, at least not formally and not today. The reason for that lies in the fact that an organizing drive at Walmart at the present time would lose spectacularly, setting back labor organizing in the retail branch of the service sector of the economy by a generation.
In any union drive, there are three basic elements: the workers, the company and the law, and in the case of Walmart all three elements work against labor, at least for now: If asked today Walmart employees would vote heavily against a union; Walmart corporate is ideologically anti-union, once actually closing a store (in Quebec) after its workers voted in a union; and the law is so heavily tilted in favor of employers and against unions that formal organizing drives are virtually a thing of the past.
So OUR Walmart instead emphasizes respect for employees and the problem of wealth inequality within the Walmart company. A low-level Walmart employee averages $8 an hour and won't get a pay raise until after 6 years of committed employment. And even then, the raise only brings the worker’s pay to $10.60 an hour or $22,048 a year, still below the national poverty line for a family of four in 2012. Low wages force many Walmart employees to rely on food stamps and other government assistance to provide for their families.
Of course, this being capitalism, this poverty is by no means shared equally across the company. In 2011 Walmart’s net income was $15.7 billion, and the net worth of the Walton family totaled $89.5 billion in 2010, as much as the bottom 41.5 percent of U.S. families combined.
Part II: What Does It Mean?
"This struggle about the legal restriction of the hours of labor raged the more fiercely since, apart from frightened avarice, it told indeed upon the great contest between the blind rule of the supply and demand laws which form the political economy of the middle class, and social production controlled by social foresight, which forms the political economy of the working class. Hence the Ten Hours’ Bill was not only a great practical success; it was the victory of a principle; it was the first time that in broad daylight the political economy of the middle class succumbed to the political economy of the working class."
- Karl Marx, 1864
The Walmart activism, limited as it is both in word and deed, is remarkable because of the significant role--both practical and symbolic--that Walmart plays in the political economy of the 21st century U.S. Walmart's business model, based as it is on a philosophy of intrusively authoritarian management, payment of the lowest wages possible, and intransigent hostility to unions, is the epitome of neo-liberal business theory. Based in right-to-work Arkansas, Walmart has stayed almost entirely union-free for most of its existence.
The point is that Walmart, with its global supply chain and network of stores, is today's equivalent of U.S. Steel or General Motors--what we used to call the "commanding heights" of the capitalist system of production. Scaling those heights is the most difficult and most crucial task, for just as the successful organizing drives at GM and USS helped lead to waves of organizing of heavy industry, so too could victory at Walmart open up the service sector to unions.
The company has never before dealt with coordinated labor protest on this scale. Dan Schlademan, director of Making Change at Walmart, another organization backed by the UFCW which works closely with OUR Walmart, explains the significance.
“In the past, Wal-Mart would fire people, would threaten people … and that would be enough to stop people in their tracks. The difference now is workers are using Wal-Mart’s own tactics to challenge the company and not backing down. Really, for the first time in Wal-Mart’s history, the tools that are used to keep people silent and under control are now being used against them. That’s significant.”
"Here is what’s so significant about this: this strike was about sending a message to Walmart that these workers won’t be silenced. This wasn't a strike to try to cripple Walmart’s operation. This wasn't a strike to impact their Black Friday sales. This was an unfair labor practices strike to send a message to Walmart that your retaliation is going to get a response like this: it is going to get publicized, and a tool they've been using is going to be used against them."
Although, as noted above, OUR Walmart isn’t pushing for union representation, Schlademan explained why OUR Walmart. “All the other things that are the heart and soul of the labor movement and of workers’ organizing are there, which is collective action, workers pulling their resources together so they have a bigger voice, and utilizing the public to educate and build power to change the company.”
Schlademan said that OUR Walmart is in it for the long haul.
“It’s gotta start somewhere. … Workers are having enough. You look at the sit-down strike, you look at the civil-rights movement, you look at the women’s rights movement, you look at anything, you look at Occupy, right? It started off with a few people sleeping in a park, and it grew,” Schlademan said. “So this is a process—people are building a movement inside of Wal-Mart, and they’re building a movement outside of Wal-Mart. What was in October was the beginning. What’s gonna happen on Black Friday will be a continuation of that ... and this will just continue to build.”
The number of union-related work stoppages involving more than 1,000 workers, which reached an all-time low of just five in 2009, rose to 13 this year as of October. And unions aren't done yet.
Nurses are striking this week at hospitals operated by Sutter Health in California; workers voted against concessions at Hostess Brands Inc., forcing the company's hand; pilots at American Airlines are wreaking havoc on the airline's schedule as it tries to cut pension and other benefits.
Julius Getman, a labor expert at the University of Texas, points out that labor activism tends to snowball.
"There's a lot of agitating going on, people are unhappy. They feel that they're not being well-treated. There is a swelling of annoyance at the rich. If there really is turmoil at Wal-Mart on Friday, it will set in motion a lot of other protests. There will be a sense of, 'Well, they did it, why shouldn't we?'"