Workers Vanguard No. 981
27 May 2011
Labor: Organize Wal-Mart!
Anti-union colossus Wal-Mart wants to boldly go where it has never gone before: New York City. In response, a coalition led by the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) and including small business owners, bourgeois politicians, community groups and churches is beseeching the Democrat-led City Council to stop the “invasion” with zoning law changes and other legal obstacles. The interests of the working class and poor are not served by agitating over which capitalist retail chain distributes wares in what market. Instead, labor needs to seize the opportunity of the corporate behemoth’s arrival in one of the most heavily unionized cities in the U.S. and finally begin an aggressive campaign to organize Wal-Mart!
Everyone has heard horror stories about this giant retailer, which, originating in Arkansas, brought the racist, anti-union “open shop” of the Southern bourgeoisie with it as it moved into the rest of the country and a large chunk of the world. (It is currently making a bid to buy South African retailer Massmart.) Off-the-clock overtime, employees locked in overnight, violation of child labor laws, flagrant discrimination against women, racist hiring practices—the list of Wal-Mart crimes grows by the day.
These iniquities, however, do not particularly distinguish Wal-Mart from Home Depot, Target, the German grocer Aldi or, for that matter, small independent grocers. Whatever the difference in scale, each is a capitalist enterprise whose profit is based on the exploitation of labor. Squeezing workers dry is what they do.
The average wage for a full-time Wal-Mart worker in the U.S. in 2008 was $10.86 per hour. Many of the workers who might be able to afford the company’s lousy health plan leave Wal-Mart, which is notorious for its high turnover rate, before they are eligible for the program. Wal-Mart’s poverty-level wages have the effect of driving down wages and working conditions for all workers.
Wal-Mart, the largest company in the world, is angling for a space in the Gateway II shopping center in Brooklyn’s East New York ghetto as its entry point into the New York market. Following a well-tested playbook, the company is counting on being positively received by residents, whose access to a variety of goods and lower prices—much less a decent supermarket—is very limited. Unemployment is 13.9 percent in East New York, almost 5 percent higher than the city average, and Wal-Mart is promising jobs to area residents. At the same time, it is appealing to the beleaguered NYC construction trade unions by pledging to build its stores with union labor—before slamming the door on unions once they open.
In the few instances in which local workers have succeeded in organizing a Wal-Mart department or an entire store, the company has picked up its marbles and gone elsewhere. When meat cutters in the Supercenter in Jacksonville, Texas, won union representation, Wal-Mart disbanded its butcher shops nationwide and switched to pre-packaged meats. When workers at the store in Jonquière, Quebec, voted to join the UFCW, the first such success in North America, Wal-Mart closed the store.
In China, a deformed workers state, workers at all Wal-Mart stores are organized by the Stalinist bureaucracy’s trade-union federation. This is doubly ironic. The pro-capitalist labor tops at unions like the UFCW and its Retail, Wholesale and Department store affiliate, who are heading up the “Walmart Free NYC” coalition, have barely lifted a finger to organize the retailer in the U.S. But they sure do blow hard with anti-Communist China-bashing and “America first” protectionist poison (see “Labor: Organize Wal-Mart!” WV No. 851, 8 July 2005).
By focusing on blocking new Wal-Mart stores, in more than one city the labor bureaucracy has found itself opposed by sections of the black and minority population looking for cheaper commodities. But there is a way for the unions to fight for their own interests as well as those of the ghetto and barrio poor: undertaking a massive and combative union organizing drive. Unionizing Wal-Mart will require the kind of hard class struggle that built the country’s CIO unions in the 1930s—mass pickets, occupations and strike action. This militant perspective is utterly counterposed to the “corporate” and “community” campaigns the current labor leadership favors.
What better place to kick off such a drive than New York City, historically a labor stronghold in a state with the highest union membership rate in the country at over 24 percent. Today NYC labor is under attack by a capitalist class that is chalking up one victory after another in its relentless drive to cripple the unions if not destroy them outright. Mayor Bloomberg and the City Council to which “Walmart Free NYC” appeals are busy bashing the teachers and other city workers. A bare-knuckles campaign to organize Wal-Mart combined with vigorous defense of the public employee and construction workers unions now under attack would go a long way to turn this around. Success in the UFCW’s current drive to organize Target stores in the NYC area would be a good start.
Our goal is not just to see Wal-Mart unionized but to expropriate it, along with the productive property of the entire capitalist class, through workers revolution. The wealth and highly developed infrastructure of companies like Wal-Mart should be harnessed by a centrally planned economy under workers rule. To this end, there must be a struggle to break the multiracial working class from the capitalist Democratic Party and to build a workers party that fights for a workers government!