The #Walmartstrike on Black Friday was an historic moment for the global labour movement. It represents the public coming out of the synthesis of occupy direct action tactics and sustainable union structures to produce a direct unionism that has the capacity to overturn corporate hegemony.
Corporate USA, especially in the retail sector, had an extremely effective strategy for ensuring their underpaid staff don’t come together in a representative union structure. This anti-union induction video for Walmart competitor, Target, is a striking example of the strategy:
The video leaves a new Target worker with a number of messages:
(1) The Union as the representative other. The actors in the video repeat the term “represent” 10 times. A Union is positioned as a third party who seeks to charge workers for representation, which takes away the voice of the individual “team member”. As the actor states, “It’s a big deal because when a union becomes a team member’s representative that team member loses the legal right to deal directly with the management team”.
(2) Third party representation gives the Union the power to make life difficult for Target “team members”. An example shows a “team member” being unable to assist a customer or rostering changing in a way which obviously leaves the new starter target audience of the video worse off.
(3) The Union is a business which charges to represent the workforce. The unstated but heavily implied aspect of this in the video is that a union member doesn’t really have a democratic say in how a Union is run or organised in the workplace. It’s a business. It takes away the voice of a worker. It introduces rules that members don’t seem to like or would think is sensible.
(4) The representation isn’t really effective anyway. The end of the video is a giant slice of “we have the power so why bother?”, or in corporate speak “Target would make the final decision on all wages and benefits regardless of what the union promises”.
This strategy of positioning a Union as the Other, a dodgy business that sells a defective product, is repeated over and over. In Australia it’s part of the reason the Coalition keep hammering away at the AWU “slush fund”-Gillard scandal. Partially it’s about attacking the Prime Minister, but essentially it’s part of building a post-Gillard narrative to justify a coming attack on the processes and structures of unions in Australia. The idea being to weigh down unions with so much regulation that they can no longer be effective fighting instruments for workers. It represents a definite shift in neo-liberal strategy. The populace at large have twigged onto the fact that they don’t really win out when you privatise the commons, or deregulate (read regulate for employers) the labor market. So you can’t really introduce that directly anymore. Instead you go after the structures that allow for effective resistance for such policies. That way you avoid the inconvenience of even having to think of dubious ways of justifying such policies to the electorate at large.
Anyway, back to big box retailers in the US. The video makes the union structures themselves the issue. It effectively raises the barrier to any form of official representation and collective bargaining under the law. And where Walmart, Target’s competitor, has had occasion to find a store that has voted for a union in can simply close it without risking the integrity of its whole network. This serves as a useful lesson to the rest. Stand up and get your head cut off.
This is where OUR (Organization United for Respect) Walmart comes in. This innovative strategy is being carried out under the auspices of the UFCW, the union for retail workers in the United States. OUR Walmart is a separate not-for-profit set up specifically for “hourly associates” (read casual retail workers) and is an early example of the principles of direct unionism being used effectively to mount a campaign.
- OUR Walmart transcends the union/non-union dichotomy (it’s not the only nor the first example of this even in the broader Walmart campaign). It sets up an immediate structure that is available for Walmart workers that is not dependent on collective bargaining procedures. It does not need to win recognition or engage in a complicated ballot process. It can start directly campaigning and acting on the issues that matter for the workers. OUR Walmart members are neither officially union or non-union but they are acting collectively, they are engaged in an educative process where they are learning what it means to be union.
- It introduces the concept of the membership continuum – OUR Walmart members pay a contribution of $5/month. This is a lot less than regular contributions but it’s enough to set them up with a campaign and a functioning organisation until they have sufficient power to win union contracts.
- It allows for direct engagement between workers through North America. The forrespect.org website has a series of discussion boards and policy wikis where members can talk about issues of importance to them and swap critical information.
- It has avenues for direct and official international solidarity. Walmart is a massive global company so to win justice OUR Walmart workers need to be able to draw on a well of global solidarity. The campaign’s use of social media to allow the campaign and its actions to play out in front of a global audience is part of this, but moreover that audience is encouraged to participate by funding striking workers. On an official level the global union federation that includes retail workers in its coverage, UNI Global, has launched an international organising campaign targeting Walmart called Alliance @ Walmart.
- OUR Walmart collects membership contributions online. The campaign is not reliant on winning recognition from Walmart so that membership contributions will be deducted from paychecks. Rather contributions occur via direct debit, which means that campaign can financially continue indefinitely. It cannot be defeated by closing a store, or scaring workers in a given area into voting down union recognition.
- There is a degree of direct membership control of OUR Walmart. It was Walmart associates that penned the Declaration of Respect that the organisation is campaigning for Walmart to adopt. It is OUR Walmart activists that prioritise the issues the organisation fights for, and sign off on the campaigning strategy that gets implemented.
What this all adds up to is a permanent campaigning structure, while it may ebb and flow in terms of momentum, that can never be stopped. It will keep flowing on towards victory.
Black Friday is just a start. And what a start. Check out the Corporate Action Network’s map of the protests across the US on Friday:
The end will change unionism as we know it and bring us closer to a just world.