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Workers Vanguard No. 1021

5 April 2013

Wal-Mart: Labor Bureaucracy’s Non-Organizing Drive

In late January, the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) informed the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) that it was disavowing any intent to unionize Wal-Mart, declaring that the union-sponsored Organization United for Respect at Walmart (OUR Walmart) merely demands that the retail giant “improve labor rights and standards for its employees.” Wal-Mart had filed a complaint against the UFCW with the NLRB charging that OUR Walmart protests last fall violated federal law limiting picketing at companies where a union has not officially sought recognition. The UFCW leadership has now pledged to cease picketing for 60 days, to erase demands for unionization from union Web sites and to e-mail its disavowal to some 4,000 OUR Walmart members nationwide. In return, the NLRB issued a January 30 memorandum saying that it would hold the company’s charge in abeyance for six months, waiting to see if “the Union complies with its commitments.”

With their non-organizing drive at Wal-Mart, the UFCW tops hope that they can slip by both the company’s anti-union machinery and the capitalist state’s web of anti-labor laws. But the labor bureaucrats are deluding Wal-Mart workers with this supposedly wily strategy. It is nothing but a surrender to a capitalist exploiter known worldwide for its anti-labor chicanery. As Trotskyist leader James P. Cannon wrote about the 1934 Minneapolis strikes that helped pave the way for the Teamsters to become a powerful nationwide union: “Bluffs don’t work in fundamental things, only in incidental ones. In such things as the conflict of class interests one must be prepared to fight” (The History of American Trotskyism, 1944).

The struggle to unionize Wal-Mart is one of those fundamental things. As the country’s largest private employer, Wal-Mart has some 1.4 million workers, employing nearly one of every 100 American workers. It is one of the world’s largest companies, operating more than 10,000 stores and generating $464 billion in revenue last year, roughly equal to Belgium’s gross domestic product. The wealth produced by Wal-Mart’s cutthroat exploitation of workers in the U.S. and abroad is enormous. The offspring of Wal-Mart founder Sam Walton, who own roughly half of the company’s shares, are worth about $90 billion. That figure is equal to the combined net worth of the bottom 41.5 percent of the entire U.S. population!

On the other hand, Wal-Mart workers (“associates” in company lingo) on average earn $8.81 an hour, well below the poverty level for a family of four. Even when they manage to get “full time” work (34 hours per week), it is not uncommon for them to rely on local food pantries. New hires must beg managers to get the 30 hours per week they need to qualify for the company’s costly, substandard health coverage. Wal-Mart’s abuse of its workers is legendary: forced and unpaid overtime, workers locked in at night to keep them from stealing, rampant discrimination against the women who make up 70 percent of its hourly workforce.

The astounding inequality between the obscenely rich Walton family and their impoverished employees makes Wal-Mart emblematic of the capitalist system, whose lifeblood is the exploitation of labor. What Karl Marx wrote in Capital (1867) during the rise of industrial capitalism is true with a vengeance today, long after the capitalist system began to decay: “Accumulation of wealth at one pole is, therefore, at the same time accumulation of misery, agony of toil, slavery, ignorance, brutality, mental degradation at the opposite pole.”

Much of Wal-Mart’s success in accumulating profit comes from keeping unions out of its operations in the U.S. and most everywhere else. As it expanded into the rest of the U.S. from Arkansas, it brought with it the racist, anti-union “open shop” of the Southern bourgeoisie. Dishing out folksy paternalism and phony “profit-sharing” schemes with one hand, Wal-Mart management cracks the whip fast and furiously at pro-union or “uppity” workers with the other. When workers at a store in Jonquière, Quebec, voted to join the UFCW in 2004, the company simply closed the store down—one of many times it has snuffed out union organizing drives.

Organizing Wal-Mart is critical for the welfare of its army of low-wage workers and for revitalizing a labor movement that has taken one body blow after another in the last few decades. Millions of workers want and need real fighting unions. But any serious union organizing drive will mean going up against not only the capitalists whose profit margins depend on remaining union-free but also the courts, cops, labor boards and other forces of the capitalist state. Waging such battles requires a hard fight against the privileged trade-union bureaucracy and its sacred strategy of reliance on the bosses’ government and the Democratic Party. Above all, what labor needs is a leadership that understands that organizing the unorganized, like all struggles against exploitation, is a matter of class against class.

Black Friday and Beyond

Right after the UFCW tops launched OUR Walmart two years ago, the New York Times reported, “Unlike a union, the group will not negotiate contracts on behalf of workers. But its members could benefit from federal labor laws that protect workers from retaliation for engaging in collective discussion and action” (“Wal-Mart Workers Try the Nonunion Route,” 14 June 2011). OUR Walmart grew rapidly over the next year, with workers signing up on the Internet and paying the $5 monthly dues online, reflecting real desire for union organization. While union officials pinned their hopes on paper-thin legal protections, Wal-Mart bosses prepared to go after OUR Walmart as a stalking horse for future unionization. The NLRB’s recent threat to clamp down on the union and OUR Walmart proves that such “protections” are a sham.

Last year’s rallies culminated in the heavily publicized “Black Friday” events held in front of 1,000 Wal-Mart stores the day after Thanksgiving. Some among the 500 Wal-Mart workers who participated braved company reprisals by walking out during their work shifts. The protests were built to shame Wal-Mart for bad corporate behavior, not to shut the stores down, and union organizers explicitly avoided calling for unionization.

A slew of fake-socialist outfits hailed the protests as historic, with the International Socialist Organization going so far as to describe this non-organizing campaign as “class struggle unionism.” The Party for Socialism and Liberation gushed that a work stoppage by a tiny sliver of Wal-Mart’s workforce “set the stage for a dramatic upsurge in the labor movement, and is an important development in the consciousness of workers, both union and non-union” (Liberation, 15 October 2012). The centrist Internationalist Group described protests and small strikes held before Black Friday as having “challenged the hidebound labor movement” (Internationalist, November 2012). More recently, Labor Notes (February 2013), whose editors orbit the reformist Solidarity organization, headlined “In Walmart and Fast Food, Unions Scaling Up a Strike-First Strategy.”

These opportunist outfits not only give cover to the UFCW bureaucrats but also actively sow confusion about the most basic precepts of trade unionism. A strike means “one out, all out.” The aim is to shut down an enterprise and its profit-making activities by mass picketing and other means. It was just such class-struggle methods that built the unions in this country and that need to be revived if labor is to get off its knees.

Before Black Friday, Wal-Mart bosses threatened employees to “show up for work or else” while also advising management hotheads to not crudely go after workers for exercising their “general legal right to engage in a walkout.” There would be casualties in any real organizing drive, and unions need to be prepared to defend victimized workers. But the UFCW and OUR Walmart are not fighting for union protections. Instead they wait for labor law violations so they can file complaints with the NLRB. This only breeds illusions in the purported neutrality of the NLRB, whose purpose is to maintain labor “peace” by enforcing anti-union laws and entangling workers in protracted legal proceedings.

Supply Chain Choke Points

The hard truth is that retail workers, atomized in thousands of separate stores, do not have the social power on their own to put a wrench in Wal-Mart’s profit machine. But Wal-Mart is not the invulnerable behemoth it is portrayed to be. Where it is particularly vulnerable is in its dependence on the steady movement of its wares through the “just-in-time” global cargo chain, with its key choke points. A huge proportion of Wal-Mart’s commodities flows from Asian factories through West Coast ports, where they are off-loaded by longshoremen and then moved by port truckers as well as rail workers to Wal-Mart’s warehouse distribution centers. A fight to organize those warehouses and Wal-Mart’s army of 7,400 truck drivers, as well as the workers in its stores, would crucially depend on solidarity in action by longshoremen and other unionized workers along the cargo chain. It would also need to be linked to efforts to organize the port truckers.

Wal-Mart commonly uses subcontractors to hire and manage workers at its huge modern warehouses. Several of these have been hit by walkouts. In September, workers backed by the Change to Win-sponsored Warehouse Workers United (WWU) walked out of a Jurupa Valley, California, warehouse over unsafe work conditions. That same month, 38 non-union workers at a distribution center in Elwood, Illinois, walked off the job for three weeks to protest the firing of several co-workers as well as wage theft and unsafe work conditions.

The Elwood action was organized by the Warehouse Workers Organizing Committee (WWOC), backed by the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers (UE). While the victimized workers were rehired with back pay, in November the same subcontractor fired four more. Those firings have not been answered with walkouts, and the workers are in limbo until an NLRB hearing in May. Like the UFCW at the stores, neither WWOC nor WWU is calling for unionization of the warehouses. Nevertheless, Wal-Mart has made some concessions to warehouse workers, indicating the disproportionate leverage they hold at the distribution choke points.

By hiring layers of subcontractors, Wal-Mart seeks to insulate itself from labor strife. Militants must find a way to bring the armies of low-wage “perma-temps” into the unions, including by fighting for union control of hiring as part of organizing drives. It is also necessary for labor to fight discrimination against young, old, women, black and immigrant workers, such as the thousands of Latino port truckers and warehouse workers in California.

In January, L.A. port truckers working for Toll Group won their first-ever contract after they joined the Teamsters. Their new contract raises their pay from $12.72 to $19.00 per hour and gives them access to more affordable health care, the Teamsters pension fund, paid sick leaves and holidays. This victory ought to be a springboard for renewed organizing of port truckers. Some 12,000 largely Latino port truckers are vital for the flow of goods from L.A.-area ports to the massive Inland Empire warehouse complex to the east. Unlike the Toll Group drivers, almost all of the port truckers are “owner operators.” Organizing this workforce has suffered from the legalistic strategy of the Teamsters bureaucracy, which has banked on pressuring the government to reclassify them as “employees.”

It’s Spelled U-N-I-O-N

Having all but abandoned the strike weapon and even use of the “s-word” in the years following the crushing of the PATCO air traffic controllers union in 1981, the pro-capitalist labor bureaucracy has helped oversee a steady, painful decline of the unions from their peak numbers in the 1950s. After throwing hundreds of millions of dollars into Democratic Party coffers, the AFL-CIO and Change to Win bureaucracies pined for Obama to give the go-ahead to organize through “card checks” and the Employee Free Choice Act. But the Obama White House was not about to ease the way to union organizing, and labor has gone on to suffer yet more defeats. When a wave of “right-to-work” laws swept into former bastions of union power like Wisconsin and Michigan, the union tops could not muster a single protest strike, despite the seething anger of rank-and-file unionists. Selling the notion that strike action is futile and that labor’s only real weapon is electoral politics, the defeatist labor bureaucrats have a new slogan: the polling booth is the new picket line.

Nowadays, in place of union organizing, the labor officialdom conjures up workers “associations,” advocacy groups, community outfits and single-issue campaigns in an attempt to get back some numbers and clout. Many of these groups exist only to help Democratic Party and other “friend of labor” capitalist politicians get elected. Some are lash-ups with clergy, small businesses, environmentalists and consumer groups pushing for good “corporate behavior” from Wal-Mart and other bloodsuckers. Instead of fighting to unionize Wal-Mart outlets, the leaderships of both the UFCW and SEIU service employees union have often campaigned to keep those stores out of key urban areas. In doing so, they go against the interests of the ghetto and barrio poor who would benefit from the jobs (and low prices) and could be won to union organizing drives.

In her book Raising Expectations (And Raising Hell): My Decade Fighting for the Labor Movement, Jane McAlevey, a former top-level SEIU service employees organizer, goes after the union’s new “grassroots movements,” using quotes from union dispatches:

“In a slight change of tactics, SEIU is now…lavishly funding community groups, or simply setting up their own fully controllable ‘community groups’ that give an illusion of independence.... SEIU is spending tens of millions ‘mobilizing underpaid, underemployed and unemployed workers’ and ‘channeling anger about jobs into action for positive change.’ What’s beyond bizarre is that the program is aimed at mobilizing poor people rather than SEIU’s own base. SEIU looks everywhere except to their own membership to gin up popular revolts.”

A class-struggle union leadership would seek to tap into the anger among the unemployed and the poor, not as a substitute for mobilizing workers but as a way to gather behind labor’s cause those cast aside by the racist rulers. Raising such demands as free, quality health care and jobs for all with good pay and benefits, union organizing drives would find a huge reservoir of support at the base of this society.

In 2003, the trade-union tops threw away an opportunity to spearhead the organizing of Wal-Mart when they sabotaged a bitter, five-month-long strike by 60,000 UFCW grocery workers in Southern California. At the time, Wal-Mart was moving into L.A. and unionized grocers like Vons, Ralphs and Albertsons used its arrival to push the UFCW for deep concessions in health and other benefits. The strikers fought like hell to win. But in the end the strike lost because of the bureaucrats’ refusal to shut down the key grocery distribution centers and to extend the strike when other supermarket contracts in California, Arizona and several other states had expired or were being negotiated.

By the mid 2000s, plenty of bureaucrats like SEIU organizer Wade Rathke had thrown in the towel when it came to Wal-Mart. Rathke’s “A Wal-Mart Workers Association? An Organizing Plan” (reprinted in the 2006 book Wal-Mart: The Face of Twenty-First-Century Capitalism) reads like a blueprint for OUR Walmart. Concluding that unionizing Wal-Mart is impossible and that the strike weapon is “bankrupt,” Rathke argues that a company union would be a step forward and that new workers “associations” could find sufficient legal protection in New Deal-era labor legislation.

Similar arguments for “non-majority,” “minority” and “open source” organizing are now sprouting up throughout the American labor movement, rejecting key lessons from the 1930s fight to forge industrial unions. What low-wage workers at Wal-Mart and everywhere need are strong, fighting unions and the power and benefits only unions can secure: good wages, seniority rights, work rules, safety protections, health care, pensions, vacations, etc. They need solid contracts and the readiness to strike to defend their gains.

To organize Wal-Mart, whose tentacles reach around the world, would require a high level of coordinated labor action, nationally and internationally. U.S. workers must form bonds of mutual assistance with their class brothers and sisters in Mexico, where Wal-Mart outraged the populace when it bribed officials to enable the company to build a “supercenter” next to the ancient pyramids in Teotihuacán. In Bangladesh, after a fire at a Wal-Mart subcontractor killed 112 garment workers in November, labor organizers produced documents showing that the retailer resisted safety improvements at the notoriously fire-prone factories. That kind of industrial murder should ignite internationally backed organizing drives demanding real gains in safety. But any such solidarity is undermined by the chauvinist flag-waving of the U.S. union tops, whose protectionist calls to “save American jobs” come at the expense of workers elsewhere.

Unionizing Wal-Mart would go a long way toward reversing what has been a one-sided class war against the working class. Led by a revolutionary workers party, a revived American proletariat would fight not only to regain what it has lost in recent decades but to expropriate the tiny class of capitalist exploiters, from Sam Walton’s spawn to the owners of the banks and major industries. That will take sweeping away the capitalist state and erecting in its place a workers state as part of the fight for world socialist revolution. 


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