Spartacist Canada No. 143
Union Victory Against Wal-Mart
For a Fighting Labour Movement! Organize the Unorganized!
When Wal-Mart workers in Jonquière won union recognition in August it was international news. Everywhere, workers who have been on the receiving end of layoffs and union busting cheered a victory against the labour-hating retail giant. It was a hard-fought battle and the 170 mostly women workers were justly proud. A few months earlier, the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) drive at the store was set back after a union vote narrowly lost. A 2002 effort to unionize was also defeated. For now, the Jonquière store is the only unionized Wal-Mart north of Mexico.
Now comes the struggle for a first contract. It won't be easy to beat the union-busting weapons in Wal-Mart's arsenal and win more than the starvation wages—about $7.60 to $8.60 an hour—and terrible working conditions at Wal-Mart. In 1997, the UFCW organized a Windsor, Ontario store but the union was decertified. Wal-Mart meatcutters in Jacksonville, Texas won union recognition only to have the boss shut down its meatcutting operations. Now Wal-Mart threatens to close its Jonquière store, whining that it is suddenly unprofitable.
Wal-Mart is the biggest retailer on the planet. Sales in 2004 are pegged at $256 billion (U.S.)—more than the GDP of Austria. It's the biggest private employer in the U.S. and in Mexico it controls half the grocery business. In Canada, with 234 stores and six Sam's Clubs, in just ten years Wal-Mart has cornered half the department store market.
What is the source of Wal-Mart's huge profits? They do what capitalists do: squeeze workers to the bone with poverty wages, keep out the union and undercut competitors. To stay "union free," Wal-Mart will stop at nothing. A company manual instructs managers that "Staying union free is a full-time commitment.... The secret of staying union free is the internal elimination of problems." And that means threats, intimidation and firing for anyone who looks sideways at a union.
Wal-Mart's success is a reflection of the grim state of affairs for unionized workers in North America. In the U.S. today, the unionization rate is just 13 percent. In Canada, it is much higher at 30.5 percent. But this is deceptive: in the private sector, the rate has plummeted in just a generation from 26 percent in 1977 to just 18 percent today. Behind this number is the story of relentless attacks on workers, unions and livelihoods, compounded by a labour leadership that has pushed concessions and give-backs down the workers' throats.
The drive to organize Wal-Mart is a key challenge for all of labour: turn back the tide of defeats and start moving forward, or lose yet more ground to the profit-bloated capitalists. The UFCW has also applied for recognition in Brossard and Saint-Hyacinthe, Quebec. In Terrace, B.C., Weyburn, Saskatchewan and again in Windsor, UFCW organizers are signing up Wal-Mart workers. At seven B.C. Wal-Mart Tire & Lube Express departments, workers signed cards with UFCW Local 1518.
A successful fight to organize Wal-Mart across Canada could be a springboard for a powerful organizing drive south of the border. But beating back this viciously anti-union outfit requires breaking with the UFCW leadership's legalist strategy of relying on labour boards and other agencies of the capitalist state. The labour movement has powerful tactics and traditions that can forge unions and win strikes: mass pickets, hot cargo edicts (secondary boycotts), plant and building occupations, political solidarity strikes. Key to winning union recognition and a decent contract for Wal-Mart workers will be active solidarity by the longshore, trucking and rail unions who can stop the flow of goods to the stores and distribution centers.
Capitalist Profiteering and the Decline of Labour
Wal-Mart is poised to enter the supermarket business in Canada, now dominated by the all-Canadian grocery giant Loblaws, owned by the fabulously wealthy Weston family. Karl Marx was right on the money when he described the tendency of capitalism toward monopoly. Two decades ago, there were some 20 major supermarket operators in Canada. Today Loblaws is by far the largest national food chain, having driven out most of its competitors.
In the 1970s, a union job in a supermarket looked fairly secure and you could get by on your paycheck. The industry is still heavily unionized—at Loblaws, about 85 percent. But after years of the union tops bowing to the companies' attacks, the jobs pay only a bit better than Wal-Mart, are part-time and have multi-tier wage schemes that set workers against each other. In B.C. in the late 1980s when Loblaws opened its Real Canadian Superstores, at the company's behest the UFCW tops created a new second-class local with lower wages and conditions for the 8-9,000 workers hired over the next decade.
In 2003, the UFCW tops did another dirty deal, this time in Ontario where Loblaws plans to open superstores. Invoking the Wal-Mart bogey, Loblaws got the UFCW misleaders to ram through an appendix to Local 1000a's current contract enforcing lower pay and benefits, no sick days, no Sunday premiums and no Christmas bonus for people at the new stores. Brazenly calling this stinker a "no concessions" package, the union brass agreed to Loblaws' demand that the 12,000-strong Local 1000a not be allowed to vote on it! As Wal-Mart and Loblaws battle for supremacy, both are waging a relentless war on current and future workers, slashing wages and conditions and keeping out the union or rendering it housebroken.
In the U.S., too, the bosses use the Wal-Mart spectre to gut union jobs and wages. A year ago, 60,000 UFCW workers waged a bitter strike against the Southern California supermarket bosses. But instead of mobilizing the collective, countrywide strength of the union, each region was left to negotiate separately. Hundreds of thousands of workers also fighting for new contracts were kept chained to the job. Massive support from other unions, including an eight-hour port shutdown by ILWU longshoremen in Los Angeles, bolstered the strike, but it was not mobilized on the picket lines and at distribution centers. Faced with a drawn-out battle and a leadership opposed to doing what was needed to win, the strikers returned to work after five months with a deeply concessionary contract that includes a three-year wage freeze and a pernicious two-tier wage scheme (see "UFCW Strike and Class Struggle in America," Workers Vanguard Nos. 821 and 822, 5 and 19 March 2004).
Workers and Bosses Have No Interests in Common
A serious North American organizing drive against Wal-Mart would resonate among workers everywhere. But victory requires a class-struggle perspective counterposed to the narrow pro-capitalist outlook of the current union leadership. Wal-Mart is committed to its class interests. As one union organizer put it, "They are very disciplined, and they've got a program" (Nation, 28 June 2004). The workers and their unions need that same hardnosed class understanding. Yet the union leadership instead pushes the class-collaborationist lie that workers and their bosses share a common interest.
This is seen most starkly in the view that increased profits for the bosses benefit the workers. In a memo to Local 1000a justifying their sellout deal with Loblaws, the UFCW tops were explicit: "...a more successful and profitable company will be able to provide more job security and stability." The experience of millions of workers who are ruined while they see the bosses amass vast wealth shows how false this is. As Karl Marx explained in Wage-Labour and Capital: "A rapid growth of capital is synonymous with rapid growth of profits. Profits can grow rapidly only when the price of labour—the relative wages—decrease just as rapidly...."
The union tops invariably urge workers to rely on capitalist governments and courts. In places like B.C. and Ontario, the UFCW puts its hopes in electing NDP governments which they expect will undo provincial anti-union laws. But the NDP is no "friend of labour." It's a social-democratic party committed in every way to the capitalist system. Just look how they sabotaged the recent HEU hospital workers strike in B.C., helping ram through a wretched give-back deal just as the province was on the edge of a general strike in solidarity with the HEU. For every pro-union platitude muttered in opposition, when it's in power the NDP rules in the bosses' interests, breaking strikes and slashing social services.
In the U.S., labour is disarmed by the union leadership's allegiance to the capitalist Democratic Party. Andrew Stern, president of the Service Employees International Union, bemoaned the low unionization rate as an electoral liability: "When only 13 percent of the American work force is in unions, our ability to win national elections is limited" (New York Times, 10 November). Stern is calling on the AFL-CIO to use the $25 million-a-year Union Plus credit card royalties to organize Wal-Mart and double the amount spent on organizing. But the AFL-CIO spent six times that—over $150 million—to get out the vote for Democrat John Kerry. Bush's win is bad news for workers, but Kerry's election would not have been good news. Like the Republicans, the Democrats are a ruling-class party dedicated to the interests of the American capitalists, which are counterposed to those of workers, blacks and all the oppressed.
The union misleaders pound workers with the idea that the bosses' state—its courts and cops—can be an ally in their struggles. Countless strikes have foundered because of this. In the struggle to unionize Wal-Mart, many of the union drives in B.C. and Quebec are tied up waiting for labour board decisions. As a strategy, this demobilizes workers. Far from neutral, these boards are a weapon of the boss class, and they often back Wal-Mart.
A UFCW Canada pamphlet against Wal-Mart is called "Blowing the Whistle on a Neighbourhood Bully." One of its political themes is protectionism. "Blowing the Whistle" points the finger at cheap foreign labour in Myanmar and Thailand, and tries to scandalize Wal-Mart by pointing out that its "Made in Canada" label on manufactured goods is bogus. But Canadian capitalists are not a shred better than their U.S. counterparts. Look at Loblaws! Capitalists go where they will make the greatest profits, and they will always try to drive down wages and conditions. Protectionism doesn't save jobs. It does undermine the international class struggle needed to win, especially against global conglomerates like Wal-Mart, setting workers against each other instead of the capitalist bosses.
Protectionism, the idea that Canadian workers have interests counterposed to workers in other countries, is not unique to the UFCW leaders. Buzz Hargrove's CAW autoworkers union trumpets a "progressive," social unionism. But the CAW leadership vituperates against Japanese and Korean cars, undercutting international solidarity and the unity of workers here, themselves of myriad nationalities and races. And for all Hargrove's militant posturing, many workers at A&P and Dominion stores, organized by the CAW's Retail Wholesale division, are also subjected to multi-tier wage schemes, their pay starting at around the minimum wage.
In Canada and the U.S., the union tops rail against China. Wal-Mart is the eighth largest buyer of exported goods from China. These goods are largely produced in the Special Economic Zones (SEZs) by firms usually owned at least in part by outside capitalists. This China bashing serves the U.S. imperialists and their Canadian junior partners in the counterrevolutionary crusade to open up China to full-scale capitalist exploitation, turning it into a giant sweatshop.
The union tops' fulminations against China do double duty, both pushing anti-Communism and scapegoating a "foreign enemy" for the loss of jobs, instead of fighting capitalism at home. Just as workers defend their unions—despite the sellout leaders—against the bosses, workers must defend China against imperialist-backed counterrevolution despite the Chinese bureaucracy's accommodation to the capitalist market.
For a Fighting Labour Movement to Bring Wal-Mart to its Knees!
What will it take to organize Wal-Mart? In a sense, the answer to this is also the answer to the question: How to turn around the situation for the working class? Militant tactics don't guarantee victory, even if the struggle is led by class-struggle Marxists. But class struggle is the only way workers have won or held on to significant gains. The problem is the present union leaders limit their program and aims, and for the most part their tactics, to what is acceptable to the bosses.
Organizing Wal-Mart, especially as it moves into the multiracial urban areas of Montreal, Toronto and Vancouver, requires consciously fighting the anti-immigrant racism and chauvinism the bosses use to poison union struggles. During last year's UFCW strike, U.S. "Homeland Security" agents raided 60 Wal-Marts, rounding up 250 undocumented workers. Instead of fighting to defend these desperate immigrant workers, the UFCW bureaucrats—who say they want to organize Wal-Mart—did nothing to mobilize the union in their behalf.
Immigrants are a big component of the Canadian working class, and in Toronto, comprise a massive 75 percent of food industry workers. Along with their Canadian-born daughters and sons, immigrants are often in the forefront of militant class battles like the B.C. hospital workers strike last spring. The fact that Wal-Mart plays on the insecurities of immigrants who know they are vulnerable to arbitrary firings and loss of status makes concrete that the demand "Full citizenship rights for all immigrants!" is in the interests of all workers.
It's not accidental that the UFCW gained recognition first in Quebec, where the reality of national oppression has often fuelled militant class battles. The Quebec unionization rate is 41 percent, and Jonquière, and the whole Saguenay region, has a history of militant working-class struggle. Parallel to the UFCW's Wal-Mart campaign, last January Alcan workers in Jonquière occupied Alcan's Arvida smelter in a spectacular action to prevent the closure of the plant and the loss of 550 jobs. This defiance of the capitalists' sacred private property won the support of workers in the area and only ended after the Quebec Labour Relations Board ruled the action illegal.
It's good that an international union, the UFCW, is running a union drive spanning Quebec and English Canada, for this can help undercut the anti-Quebec chauvinism that is rife among Anglo-Canadian workers. For decades the labour leaders of English Canada—and especially the NDP—have pushed reactionary "Canadian unity," which is really support for the oppression of the Québécois nation. This undermines solidarity with the Quebec labour movement, which in the main supports independence, and drives Québécois workers into the arms of the bourgeois nationalists of the Parti Québécois. The result is a working class that is deeply divided along national lines. In English Canada militant workers must oppose Anglo chauvinism down the line and advocate Quebec independence, thus showing Quebec workers that they, not the Québécois bosses, are their true allies.
In the struggle to unionize Wal-Mart, the grinding oppression of working-class women is also a burning issue. In the biggest class-action suit in U.S. history 1.6 million former and current Wal-Mart women employees are demanding restitution for years of vicious and flagrant anti-woman discrimination. Union control of hiring, with affirmative action recruitment and training for women and minorities would go some ways to redressing historic inequalities. For the impoverished and heavily female workforce at Wal-Mart, demands for free 24-hour child care would strike a real chord. Taking on the destruction of the health care system, the demand for decent across-the-board medical benefits must be linked to the fight for free, quality health care for all.
In the 1930s and '40s, the thousands of militants who considered themselves communists propelled the great industrial union organizing drives forward. Motivated by their ideals of building a society where those who labour rule, they knew that spiking the bosses' attacks on minorities and immigrants was crucial to victory. This must inspire today's militants who face the task of ousting the cowardly union bureaucrats and forging a new, class-struggle leadership of the unions. The fight to organize the unorganized could be the crucible in which a revolutionary workers party is forged in political struggle against the pro-capitalist labour brass and the NDP. Such a party is indispensable to unite the working class and lead it in the revolutionary overthrow of the bosses' rule. A workers government that rips the economy out of the hands of the capitalists is the only road to the creation of a truly human society in which production is for human need, not profit.