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Workers Vanguard No. 851

8 July 2005

For Class Struggle, Not "Corporate Campaigns"

Labor: Organize Wal-Mart!

It is an anti-labor behemoth, a modern monument to capitalist greed and pitiless exploitation. Wal-Mart, the world's largest profit-making enterprise, today sets the standard in this country for union-busting and wage-gouging. A growing legion of American companies, inspired by the giant retailer's relentless drive for ever greater profits, has sought to adopt its brutal methods to cut costs—above all, by slashing workers' wages and benefits. Wal-Mart stands as a mortal challenge to the organized labor movement: Unionize this goliath or suffer ever greater setbacks.

With 1.6 million workers, Wal-Mart is the largest employer in the U.S. and Mexico as well as the largest retailer in Canada. This fact underlines that such a struggle must be international. Wal-Mart not only must but also can be brought to its knees by the social power of the unions. The labor movement must mobilize in the kind of hard class struggle that built the country's industrial unions in the 1930s—strike action, not "corporate" and "community" campaigns.

The enormous economic weight that Wal-Mart has acquired is unprecedented for a retail chain. If Wal-Mart were a country, its yearly revenue of well over a quarter of a trillion dollars would make it the 29th largest economy in the world. It would also be China's sixth-largest export market, accounting for 10 percent of all Chinese goods imported into the U.S. Meanwhile, fewer than half of Wal-Mart's employees can afford to pay for the company's health plan. The average wage for a full-time Wal-Mart worker in the U.S. is a meager $9.68 an hour. At that rate, someone working 34 hours a week—Wal-Mart's definition of full-time—earns well below the federal poverty line for a family of four.

On Forbes magazine's 2004 list of the ten richest people in the world, five are members of the Walton family, the major shareholders of Wal-Mart (their combined worth totals a cool $100 billion). Originating from Arkansas, Wal-Mart is a Southern company that has moved into the rest of the country and brought with it the racist, anti-union "open shop" of the Southern bourgeoisie. The Walton family is a major backer of George W. Bush and his family. And much like Bush, the Waltons are ideologically driven reactionaries who often censor what books, music or magazines are sold at their retail empire; Wal-Mart pharmacists are not allowed to sell the morning-after pill.

Wal-Mart managers force workers to clock out and then do unpaid overtime; they lock the doors during work shifts supposedly to prevent theft. In one case, Michael Rodriguez, a worker at a Wal-Mart store in Texas, was forced to wait for over an hour, trapped beneath fallen machinery, as his co-workers searched for a key. Last February, the Department of Labor fined Wal-Mart $135,540—the equivalent of no more than 15 seconds' worth of retail sales—for violating child labor laws by having 16-year-olds operate dangerous machinery like forklifts, chain saws and box crushers. Discrimination against women is so egregious that Wal-Mart is being sued by 1.6 million current and former women employees. This is the largest civil rights class action lawsuit against a private company in U.S. history.

The impact of Wal-Mart on the rest of corporate America has been enormous. According to a 2001 study by the McKinsey Global Institute, almost 4 percent of the U.S. economy's gain in productivity from 1995 to 1999 could be traced directly or indirectly to Wal-Mart. Wal-Mart is relentless in demanding that its 21,000 suppliers adopt its methods—from the use of cost-cutting technology to viciously slashing wages and benefits.

Wal-Mart bosses retaliate ruthlessly against any hint of unionization, firing union supporters, delaying union certification elections while transferring in union opponents and buying votes by promising raises and promotions. A federal grand jury is investigating accusations that Wal-Mart's former vice chairman siphoned off half a million dollars of company funds for such things as paying snitches to rat out union supporters. Five years ago, when barely a dozen meatcutters at a Wal-Mart store in Jacksonville, Texas voted to join the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW), Wal-Mart bosses shut down the meatcutting departments in stores across the country and switched to prepackaged meats. When workers at the Wal-Mart store in Jonquière, Quebec, voted last summer to join the UFCW, making it the only unionized Wal-Mart in North America, the company simply closed down the store. In subsequent union certification elections—such as in New Castle, Pennsylvania, and Loveland, Colorado—Wal-Mart workers voted to reject the union. As a UFCW spokesman said, the aim of the Jonquière shutdown was "to instill fundamental fear in every Wal-Mart employee that if they try to mix with the union, this is what is going to happen" (Inter Press Service, 18 April).

But Wal-Mart cannot shut down all its stores. Wal-Mart has enormous weight in the U.S. economy. By the same token, workers in that company have considerable social power. Many large corporations depend on Wal-Mart to market anywhere from 20 to 80 percent of their production and would be crippled by a strike or lockout at Wal-Mart. Its trucking fleet is the largest private carrier in the U.S. Workers in the giant warehouses that handle the flow of imports to Wal-Mart and other large retail chains have the power to halt an important sector of commercial activity.

UFCW: A Strike Betrayed

There was an opportunity to have a spearhead for an organizing drive against Wal-Mart. But the trade-union tops threw it away. In the fall of 2003, the UFCW launched what was to become a bitter five-month-long strike by 60,000 grocery workers in Southern California demanding better pay and health care. A victorious UFCW strike could have provided the springboard for a campaign to organize Wal-Mart, including by inspiring pro-union Wal-Mart workers. In the end, however, the strike lost, with workers returning to work under new contracts containing deep concessions.

The responsibility for this defeat lies squarely with the trade-union bureaucracy. The UFCW workers fought like hell to win. Several times, the workers defied the treachery of the bureaucrats, including by appealing to Teamsters and other unions to keep the grocery stores' distribution centers shut down—a key task to cut off the flow of goods to the stores—despite the bureaucrats' efforts to let the distribution centers re-open. Tens of thousands of UFCW members—employed by some of the same chains struck in Southern California—were working under extended contracts that had already expired, and more than 280,000 grocery workers in eleven states had contracts that were about to expire. Yet, the labor tops did everything in their power to isolate the Southern California workers by refusing to extend the strike nationally.

Instead, the labor tops pushed consumer boycotts. Such pressure tactics can have some real effect, but only if they are an auxiliary to hard class struggle. For the labor tops, however, they are a substitute for class struggle. Rather than mobilizing for victory, the labor tops atomized the power of the workers and relied instead on public opinion.

For workers fighting to unionize Wal-Mart, it is vital to draw the lessons of the UFCW strike. Against Wal-Mart, the labor tops are essentially pursuing the same losing strategy they pursued during the UFCW strike. To win, however, the labor movement cannot play by the rules of the bosses and their government. It must use methods that the bourgeoisie deems "illegal"—mass picketing that shuts down operations and secondary boycotts and strikes by Teamsters and other transport workers. No decisive gain of labor was ever won in a courtroom or by an act of Congress. Everything the workers movement has won of value has been achieved by mobilizing the ranks of labor on the picket lines, in plant occupations. What counts is power. The strength of the unions lies in their numbers, militancy, organization and discipline and their relation to the means of production in modern capitalist society. The bosses are winning because the power of labor, its strength to decisively cripple the enemy, has not been brought to bear.

A chief obstacle to class struggle in the U.S. is the labor bureaucracy. The labor tops are committed to the capitalist system and the logic of the "free market." Especially through the instrument of the Democratic Party, the union bureaucrats chain the workers to the capitalist class enemy and the bourgeois state. The Democrats, no less than the Republicans, are a party of and for the capitalist class. The difference is that the Republicans make no bones about openly trying to screw working people; the Democrats do it while bemoaning the consequences or proclaiming themselves "friends of labor" who "support" the unions.

As we wrote in "Labor Tops Sell Out Militant Supermarket Workers—UFCW Strike and Class Struggle in America" (WV No. 821, 5 March 2004):

"This strike—both the courageous determination of the workers and the venal treachery of the bureaucrats—underlined in the most stark terms the necessity of fighting for a new leadership in the unions. The unions are mass organizations of workers to defend their economic interests against the capitalists; but to consistently fulfill that role they must be led by a class-struggle, anti-capitalist leadership that understands that the interests of the workers and the capitalists are counterposed."

The forging of a new leadership in the unions is part of the fight to build a revolutionary workers party, a party whose purpose is not to provide an electoral shill for the Democrats but to give conscious leadership to the workers, linking their struggles to improve present conditions to the necessity to do away with the entire system of capitalist wage slavery and racist oppression.

No to "Corporate Campaign" Sellouts!

In their concerted effort to defeat the UFCW strike, the supermarket bosses used Wal-Mart's attempts to enter the California grocery market as an excuse to demand huge concessions from the workers. As a spokesman from UFCW put it, even before the strike: "Wal-Mart is essentially the third party at the bargaining table at every retailing negotiation in the country" (Crain's Chicago Business, 7 July 2003). Thus, the fight to organize Wal-Mart is critical to the labor movement as a whole. But instead of waging such a fight, the labor tops offer up anti-Communist China-bashing and protectionism, which posits foreign workers—not the capitalist bosses—as the enemy, and "community" and "corporate" campaigns that only highlight the impotence and weakness of the union leadership in this country.

The "corporate campaign" against Wal-Mart—exemplified by lawsuits and raising "public awareness" about the company's anti-labor practices—epitomizes the cohabitation that exists between the AFL-CIO tops and Democratic Party bigwigs. The campaign is modeled on the AFL-CIO's get-out-the-vote machine—with its mass mailings, phone banks and work-site visits—that serves to hustle votes for (mainly) Democratic politicians. Heading the effort is Ellen Moran, an AFL-CIO honcho with long experience in helping to organize Democratic election campaigns. Last year, Moran took a leave from her union post to work on the Democratic National Committee for the John Kerry presidential campaign.

Andrew Stern's Service Employees International Union (SEIU) also kicked off a "broad" anti-Wal-Mart campaign, putting up $1 million in seed money last year to launch an umbrella coalition, the Center for Community and Corporate Ethics, as well as a related group, Wal-Mart Watch. The SEIU's Center, which brings together feminists, environmentalists and others, is headed by Andy Grossman, former director of the Democratic Party's Senatorial Campaign Committee. Stern is leading opposition to AFL-CIO president John Sweeney in the run-up to this summer's national convention. The ten-point program of the Stern coalition, titled "Unite to Win," calls for allocating $25 million to a campaign for better jobs and benefits. "Challenging" Wal-Mart should be the first priority, according to this statement, but it does not even call for unionizing the retail giant. For all his talk of organizing workers, Stern's objective is not union action but building a cross-class alliance to put more effective pressure on the Democratic Party. The basic strategy of all wings of the AFL-CIO bureaucracy is to pressure the capitalist government, the executive committee of the ruling class, for concessions.

The UFCW has also launched its own parallel campaign titled Wake Up Wal-Mart. It is headed by Paul Blank, who was previously national political director for Democratic presidential candidate Howard Dean. Blank, who used the Internet to recruit to the Dean campaign thousands of enthusiastic youth (dubbed "Deanie boppers" by the press), promises to do the same for organized labor. "The UFCW has realized that it's not just a worker-based campaign any longer, but it's really America's campaign to change Wal-Mart," Blank declared. "So we have shifted the focus from just in-store organizing, which is the traditional union model of store-by-store organizing into a model where we're building a grass-roots movement of Americans who want to change Wal-Mart" (Houston Chronicle, 25 April).

The unions' "community organizing" campaigns have actually had some success in preventing Wal-Mart from setting up stores in a number of major cities (which, in turn, has reportedly helped drive down the price of the company's stock on Wall Street). But as Wal-Mart chief executive Lee Scott haughtily told his critics, as long as customers keep coming through the doors, their campaign "doesn't mean diddly squat" (Denver Post, 6 April).

Wal-Mart has launched its own counteroffensive, taking out ads in newspapers throughout the country as well as Asian language advertisements on Chinese, Vietnamese and Filipino television stations. In response to an article attacking Wal-Mart, the retail giant took out a two-page ad in the 7 April New York Review of Books titled: "Wal-Mart's Impact on Society: A Key Moment in Time for American Capitalism."

In trying to refurbish its image, Wal-Mart grossly portrays itself as a friend of poor people. In its New York Review of Books ad, Wal-Mart CEO Lee Scott, answering "our grocery union critics," wrote that if Wal-Mart "raised prices substantially to fund above-market wages, as some critics urge, we'd betray our commitment to tens of millions of customers, many of whom struggle to make ends meet." The reality is, being the largest employer in one of the fastest growing sectors of the economy, Wal-Mart, with its "standards" of low wages, speedup and intensified exploitation, serves to drive down the wages and standard of living of all workers.

By focusing on blocking new Wal-Mart stores instead of waging the hard fight to organize the retailer, the union bureaucracy has more than once found itself opposed by a section of the poor black and minority population looking for cheaper commodities. In Chicago and Atlanta, the NAACP and other black leaders sided with Wal-Mart against the unions' attempt to block the store from being built. Instead of organizing Wal-Mart, the labor tops have joined a campaign to defend the supermarket chains—including the very ones that defeated the UFCW strike—as well as high mark-up, non-union, small-shop enterprises against the retail giant.

The utter disarray of the union bureaucrats in the face of Wal-Mart's PR offensive was exemplified by the following incident: In early May, Stern's SEIU publicly complained that the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) was meeting with Wal-Mart management. A month later, Wal-Mart CEO Scott wrote to Bush asking him to "stand with me, members of the Congressional Black Caucus, other political and civil rights leaders" in supporting an extension of some of the Voting Rights Act provisions which come up for renewal in 2007. Wal-Mart Watch (whose board of directors includes Stern) was reduced to applauding Wal-Mart's position while blustering that it "shows our efforts are having an impact, because they are feeling the pressure." Stern's group lamely added that Wal-Mart could "now achieve even more justice in the world by providing its employees affordable health care and sufficient wages" (Roll Call, 16 June).

Defend the Gains of the Chinese Revolution!

Wal-Mart is one of the largest buyers of China's growing volume of export goods, which are produced by firms usually owned, at least in part, by outside capitalists. The labor misleaders, in pushing protectionist poison, blame cheap foreign labor and demand U.S. imperialist-enforced "labor standards" as a mechanism to invoke tariffs. In the case of Wal-Mart, the bureaucracy's tirades are directed mainly against China.

China is a bureaucratically deformed workers state where capitalism was overthrown and replaced by a collectivized economy as a result of the 1949 Revolution—a victory for working people around the world. Despite the capitalist inroads created by the Stalinist bureaucracy's "market reforms," China's core economy is still based on nationalized property. The American bourgeoisie's counterrevolutionary aim is to restore capitalist rule and fully open up China to capitalist exploitation and turn it into one gigantic sweatshop. Just as workers defend their unions against the bosses—despite sellout leadership—it is in the interests of the international working class, including in the U.S., to defend China against capitalist counterrevolution despite the Chinese Stalinist bureaucracy's accommodation to capitalism. The American trade-union bureaucracy's hostility to China is based on visceral anti-Communism, with the added convenience of scapegoating a "foreign enemy" for the loss of American manufacturing jobs instead of fighting the capitalists at home.

The Chinese Stalinist bureaucracy is effectively acting as a labor contractor for the American bourgeoisie, offering up low-wage Chinese workers for the U.S. capitalists. The Chinese working class must sweep away the Stalinist bureaucracy, which has gravely weakened the system of nationalized property internally while conciliating imperialism at the international level. We stand for a proletarian political revolution to defend and extend the gains of the workers state, while placing power directly in the hands of workers and peasants councils. This could inspire proletarian socialist revolution throughout Asia, including in the industrial powerhouse of Japan.

Last fall, after the officially sanctioned trade-union organization, the All-China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU), issued a list of foreign-owned companies that were blocking workers from setting up unions, Wal-Mart promised to comply with laws requiring it to allow the establishment of ACFTU unions in its 40 Chinese stores if the workers so wished. In the U.S., Workers World Party, which tails the Chinese Stalinist bureaucracy largely uncritically, hailed this as an event that "could have tremendous repercussions for low-wage retail workers everywhere" (Workers World, 27 January). The question of the ACFTU is contradictory. On the one hand, as the only union body legally allowed in China, the ACFTU is an arm of the Stalinist bureaucracy, whose aim is to maintain its privileges and rule, including by policing the workers. At the same time, even the official unions have at times participated in some of the large-scale labor protests that Chinese workers have engaged in in recent years to defend their livelihoods against the bureaucracy's "market reforms."

An integral part of our program for proletarian political revolution in the deformed workers states is building unions free from bureaucratic control. Trade unions are necessary even in a workers state ruled by genuine workers democracy to protect against possible encroachments and abuses by the government, as well as to help plan production, work methods, etc. At the same time, anti-Communist forces, including the AFL-CIO officialdom, promote "free trade unions" as a club for capitalist counterrevolution in China. The struggle in China today for trade unions free from bureaucratic control must take as its starting point defense of collectivized property and opposition to capitalist restoration.

For International Labor Solidarity!

The pitiful wages and benefits at Wal-Mart are hardly unique. Of the ten fastest-growing sectors in the U.S. economy, four had average wages under $11 per hour, including in retail. A successful fight to unionize Wal-Mart would be a giant step toward turning that situation around. Fighting simply to prevent the construction of new Wal-Mart stores does nothing to change it. Instead, the labor movement ought to be telling Wal-Mart that they can open as many stores as they want, so long as they are unionized. In at least one instance, in heavily unionized Joliet, Illinois, UFCW leaders, instead of flatly opposing a new Wal-Mart store, demanded that Wal-Mart agree not to interfere in union organizing efforts at the store as a precondition for its construction. But for such demands to have any real effect, they must be followed up by a militant drive to actually organize Wal-Mart.

The union tops virtually ignored Wal-Mart until the supermarket chains started losing market share to Wal-Mart Supercenters in the mid to late 1990s. They have given Wal-Mart a free (union-free) hand to develop to the point where an organizing drive must now address over a million workers—and must be carried out as a nationwide campaign. Asked what it would take to achieve that end, Ginny Coughlin, spokeswoman for UNITE (Union of Needletrades, Industrial and Textile Employees), replied, "I was just talking about this with a colleague the other day. We figured 3,000 organizers at a minimum. And all the resources, political will and leadership of probably four or five major unions" (Nation, 28 June 2004).

At least. Above all, it comes down to political program. Labor, basing itself on those areas that are already unionized, needs to extend the organizing drive to the South. When Wal-Mart lauded itself as a "leading employer" of black people, a number of black leaders aptly noted that the same could have been said of the slave plantations. But today's union tops, though they often speak at MLK Day assemblies and invoke racial equality, disdain the kind of labor battles it will take to organize the South, where "right to work" laws are backed up by racist Klan terror. Unionizing the notoriously anti-union South—and Southern-based companies like Wal-Mart—poses the need for the labor movement to wage a determined fight against the deep racial oppression and pervasive anti-black racism that exist in this country.

It's not just in the South. In late 2003 during the Southern California grocery workers strike, when fascist skinheads attacked black and Latino strikers, the UFCW needed to organize picket defense guards, drawing in all of labor in the region as well as the minorities and immigrants who bear the brunt of fascist terror. But the union leadership did nothing. In the face of similar fascist provocations over the years in major cities, the Spartacist League and the Partisan Defense Committee have initiated mass labor/black mobilizations—drawing on the social power of trade unions—to stop the KKK and Nazis. This is what a fighting labor movement led by a revolutionary workers party would do, championing the cause of all the oppressed, combatting every manifestation of anti-black racism and demanding full citizenship rights for all immigrants.

Organizing Wal-Mart will require the active defense of immigrant rights. When Wal-Mart was forced to pay $11 million early this year to settle federal charges that it employed undocumented workers to clean its stores, the union tops, rather than fighting in defense of these workers, went after Wal-Mart for hiring "illegal" immigrants. Two weeks into the UFCW grocery strike in California, "Homeland Security" federal agents raided 60 Wal-Mart stores and rounded up more than 250 undocumented immigrant workers. But the UFCW leadership, which says it wants to organize Wal-Mart, did nothing to mobilize the unions on their behalf. As we wrote in "Labor: Defend Immigrant Wal-Mart Workers! No Deportations!" (WV No. 813, 7 November 2003):

"By rising to the defense of these immigrant workers, the UFCW would be mobilizing in defense of all Wal-Mart workers, undercutting the company's rabidly anti-union maneuvers and facilitating the organization of Wal-Mart workers."

Working-class struggle must be consciously waged as an international fight. And it must be based on the understanding that the interests of labor and capital can never be reconciled. The only way to guarantee good living conditions for everyone, jobs for all and an end to capitalist exploitation and racist oppression is through the expropriation of the capitalist class through socialist revolution. As Trotskyist internationalists, our watchword is not the deadly dangerous trap of "defending American jobs" against foreign competition, but the words which Marx and Engels inscribed on their banner: "Workers of the world, unite."

Workers Vanguard No. 851

WV 851

8 July 2005


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