A word on Walmart

I didn’t make it to the local Walmart picket, due to work. I’ve been sloppily piecing together what information I can on how the larger Black Friday “strike”/protest action went overall, including some interesting comments here http://libcom.org/blog/black-friday-wal-mart-strikes-analysis-22112012#comments

I’d recommend folks definitely read that whole discussion to get a sense how syndicalist types felt about the day’s actions and the OUR Walmart movement overall.

As a side note I just googled “our walmart” and found this bit of amusement http://ourwalmart.org/

OURWalmart.org is no longer in service.

The union-backed organization which sponsored this domain is not affiliated with Walmart or Sam’s Club and does not represent the company nor its associates.

For factual information about Walmart, including its outstanding career opportunities, visit http://www.walmartstores.com

Apparently OUR Walmart moved to this site http://forrespect.org/

Anyone who is under any illusions about what OUR Walmart is or what it (officially) wants, especially folks who insist on reading into a form of “independent self-organized minority unionism” or whatever the hell, should definitely check the site and especially read the “About Us” page and the “Declaration for Respect.” Apart from the fact that it’s clearly driven and, to large extent, “stage-managed” by UFCW (which is possibly the worst of the worst of the bigger mainstream unions), the vision and values it proudly stands for are a pure expression of labor left “corporatism.”

A point raised in the libcom discussion was that it’s some of the folks commenting were complaining about the lack of confrontation and insistence by the “union police” to be “respectful,” not block entrances etc., which someone replied to that the workers in OUR Walmart had explicitly asked for protesters to be respectful etc., so the “union police” were actually enforcing what the workers asked for. I think that’s a fair enough point. The comrade who made that point also accused the more cynical folks of having a paternalistic analysis because they said it was UFCW-controlled, and something about class consciousness being slow to develop. Well, for one, it is clearly UFCW-controlled, so not sure where the comrade is getting this “paternalism” thing. Yeah some workers are involved and there’s some initiative that happens, that’s always the case. I could say the same about the company I work at, it means nothing. And secondly, class conscious is slow to develop, sure, but this isn’t even a class conscious organization in any meaningful way – it explicitly (in its “program” of sorts) and implicitly (in its actions) is a class collaborationist movement and the vague calls for “input” and warm references to Sam Walton are the pure stuff of corporatism. The most militant thing about it- the “strike”- was borderline farcical. About the only thing about it of any value is that there might be a handful of workers within the handful of workers who make it up in the first place, who actually are militant and class conscious and could give a shit about the company. And if so, OUR Walmart is an awful outlet for those workers’ militancy.

A couple snippets from the discussion.

Heironymous

I hate to sound so pessimistic, but I’m expressing my honest opinion. Unless Saul Alinsky was right about outsiders bringing organizational impetus and consciousness from the outside (an ideology he shared with Lenin), this struggle won’t be driven forward by the agency of Walmart workers themselves but instead will be these vapid spectacles out of the UFCW playbook. It doesn’t matter if it’s Change to Win, AFL-CIO, faith-based groups, or local politicians leading these events because unless the initiative comes from the shopfloor, it will be the same losing strategy unions have been doing for 30 years.

This is clearly completely different from the insurgency of the 1930s. Back then the organizing began with direct action, whether the jobs actions, quickie strikes and wildcats or the militant occupation and defense of whole factories.It was the content of the struggles, not the form of their organizations that was the driving force in the class war. George Rawick sums this up best in this essay “Working Class Self-Activity”:

George Rawick wrote:
The full organization of the major American industries, however, was a mark of the victories, not the cause of the victories, of the American working class. The unions did not organize the strikes; the working class in the strikes and through the strikes organized the unions. The growth of successful organizations always followed strike activity when some workers engaged in militant activities and others joined them. The formal organization – how many workers organized into unions and parties, how many subscriptions to the newspapers, how many political candidates nominated and elected, how much money collected for dues and so forth – is not the heart of the question of the organization of the working class. The statistics we need to understand the labor history of the time are not these. Rather, we need the figures on how many man-hours were lost to production because of strikes, the amount of equipment and material destroyed by industrial sabotage and deliberate negligence, the amount of time lost by absenteeism, the hours gained by workers through the slowdown, the limiting of the speed-up of the productive apparatus through the working class’s own initiative.

syndicalistcat

Hieronymous bitches about marshals preventing people from blocking the store entry. If people had tried to do that, there would have been a confrontation with the police. What Hieronymous didn’t ask himself apparently was, What did the OUR Walmart workers in this store want people to do? In fact they distributed a small leaflet asking people to be respectful. And asking customers to give a solidarity dollar to the checker on the way out. The level of militant conscousness & self-confidence is only just beginning to develop among the workers…that is my sense. They are up against the world’s biggest corporation, and they are still very much a minority union in the workplaces. And when I say “minority union” I don’t just mean the formal organization “OUR Walmart” but also the actual organizing & mutual support & interactions going on among these workers in the stores.

H. quotes George Rawick and makes this summation: “This is clearly completely different from the insurgency of the 1930s. Back then the organizing began with direct action, whether the jobs actions, quickie strikes and wildcats or the militant occupation and defense of whole factories.It was the content of the struggles, not the form of their organizations that was the driving force in the class war.” Actually this is not quite right. Take the first plant occupation, at Hormel. There were already a group of IWW butchers in that plant. There was organizing that had been going on. They would not have been able to get hundreds of workers to bust thru the doors and seize the plant if this had not been gestating for awhile. This is the inaccuracy in H.’s spontaneism.

Both of these comrades are smart, but both are wrong, in my opinion, about several things. Both “H.’s spontaneism” and syndicalistcat’s insistence that this is the beginning development of “militant consciousness” with the workers, in opinion, both speak to real things that are important but are both missing something too. I really don’t care that much about the inside/outside dichotomy folks keep bringing up. As if that’s the issue. If so we should dismantle the IWW, because it’s an “outside organization.” And frankly I’m not against doing “outside actions” sometimes if it gets the desired results. What I do care about is the fact that this isn’t a militant class struggle union. I have no desire for militant class conscious workers to get used by the UFCW, so folks who want to push this thing should push a different, not try to take over OUR Walmart (an organization that has almost nothing in common with syndicalism). And the fact that it’s still weak and small and that it is clearly driven by the UFCW, means there’s little pause for fear of a backlash from the workers.

What strikes me about how some comrades and fellow workers and such are responding to this is basically “aw man, that’s so cool there’s a thing at Walmart, let’s get in on that.” And since they don’t have any organization themselves, they want to shortcut things by getting in with the OUR Walmart campaign, and pretend it’s something other than what it is.

H.’s latest comment includes both some really good more optimistic stuff and a bit of it’s own bullshitting (surprising from H. who is always good for pessmisitic naysaying, but whatever). The good part:

1. Strike by 3 dozen temporary warehouse workers employed by NFI Industries, a Walmart subcontractors, in California’s Inland Empire last September. Strike was over unsafe working conditions, like extremely high temperatures, lack of ventilation and access to drinking water, and broken and dangerous equipment.
2. Strike by 2 dozen temporary Walmart warehouse workers in Elwood, Illinois a week later, obviously in solidarity with the California warehouse workers. They struck over wage theft due to forced overtime, irregular schedules, and the lack of safety equipment. Initially 4 workers circulated a petition and were immediately fired, drawing out the strikers. After 3 weeks on strike, the strikers returned to work with full back pay for the time they were on strike.
3. Days after the victory in Illinois, and given inspiration and confidence by their example, 70+ workers from 9 Walmart stores in California went on a one-day strike on October 4, 2012.

The bullshit part:

I liked the way Staughton Lynd articulated this nascent strike wave in the latest Industrial Worker:

Staughton Lynd wrote:
What it represents is the spread of characteristic Wobbly forms of self-activity to workplaces where those practices arise spontaneously because they speak to the needs and opportunities actually experienced by Walmart workers
Perhaps the best example of a spontaneous class-conscious strike wave spreading down proto-supply chains was the 1877 Great Upheaval Railroad Strike. Hopefully the recent Walmart actions can travel down global supply chains and spark solidarity actions across oceans among Walmart production, transportation, and logistics workers in China, Bangladesh and elsewhere.

I’m particularly surprised by the Staughton Lynd quote which is a classic example of leftist self-projection. I’m not surprised by Lynd saying it but I’m surprised that H. liked the quote so much. The thing about spreading across oceans is fine prescriptively although I’d be surprised if it actually happened that simply. Who knows though, we’ll see.

What should folks do, then?

Well it’d be nice if folks would call things what they are, for a start. As far as what should rev-lefts, syndicalists, wobblies, anarchists etc. do, mainly they should focus on organizing and not get sucked into the OUR Walmart bandwagon. As far as involvement with Walmart workers goes, I’d be a lot happier to see a real militant organization formed rather than see militants sign up into OUR Walmart and attempt to organize via that structure. As it is the warehouse organizing is more divided between a couple different unions, and most of the warehouses and the stores alike are simply unorganized. And where there is organization, in most cases it’s weak.

OUR Walmart itself is probably the purest example of what, in my opinion, UFCW has been attempting for years to become- a company union. The unions, incl UFCW, have been declining for decades and UFCW’s response has been consistently to sacrifice the material interests of its rank and file in pursuit of a lost cause of becoming an unofficial company union. As it turns out that’s hard to do, since it isn’t a company union and the companies don’t want them there, so the union attempts to sell itself to the companies by selling out the workers’ interests. Because it doesn’t have a contract with Walmart, and it’s been unsuccessful it attempts so far to unionize Walmart, now the union is attempting to find an “in” by experimenting an explicitly Walmart-centric wannabe company union that could potentially break into the company in a way that traditional UFCW union drives haven’t.

As far as I see it there are basically two things worth pursuing here. One is economic gains for workers, which OUR Walmart could hypothetically win, but, “we’ll see.” The other is militant class conflict. I highly doubt that most Walmart workers care any more about some kind of pseudo-cooperative arrangement with the company (re:”input”) than do most other workers. What most primarily want is pay. That’s why we work. Appealing to the familial sensibilities of Walmart employees/”associates” is both ideologically gross and a dead-end organizationally. The only thing it points to is a potential partnership (read:crappy sellout) arrangement with Walmart, which would be typical of anything UFCW touches. The other factor that does whip up workers in many cases, is pure and simple class hatred. The bosses suck, the company sucks, and most workers know it. And some who know it and want to “stick it to the man” might get sucked into this campaign, but that doesn’t make it a good a choice of campaign for working class militants to get involved in.

While simple “class hatred” isn’t always ideologically coherent or clean, it’s the stuff of revolution. What’s clear is that when OUR Walmart declares itself “for respect” they mean mutual respect between the company and the workers. While that might be sweet and appeal to the more liberal sensibilities of many folks, it has nothing to offer for working class militants.

EDIT

I just saw this newer post from H., perfectly sums it up.

As Huli pointed out, UFCW has a clear strategy on organizing Walmart. I think it was fully first articulated by UFCW allies like Wade Rathke, who put out “A Wal-Mart Workers Association? An Organizing Plan” around 2005 (published as chapter 12 in Wal-Mart: The Face of Twenty-First-Century Capitalism, edited by Nelson Lichtenstein) [I stand to be corrected if this]. Rathke is the founder of ACORN who recently had to resign over major embezzlement by his brother. He is also the founder of SEIU Local 100 in New Orleans and has been a pioneer in that union (along with former union boss Andy Stern and SEIU staffer Stephen Lerner) of steering away from class struggle and instead building “community alliances,” “corporate campaigns,” boycotts, and media-savvy campaigns — in the model of Justice for Janitors.

Rather than the same failed strategies of class collaboration, Walmart workers need some of the early IWW’s uncompromising class war radicalism if they are to stand any chance with the world’s largest corporation.

One more thing: when the striking Chicago teachers joined a Walmart workers’ picket line in October, the “Chicago Idea” of true working class solidarity seemed to be reborn. Striking Chicago teachers and striking warehouse workers walking the same picket line might put the idea of sympathy strikes back in people’s minds. Even though a real one didn’t happen, Occupy Oakland put “general strike” back on people’s lips. Hopefully wage workers will begin to see these workplace struggles in class terms and we’ll once again have actions based on solidarity and class consciousness. As Chilli’s original post pointed out, this could conceivably happen in defense of workers retaliated against for their actions on Black Friday.

And in my opinion refutes this claim.

Lynd is right that this is the original minority union, direct worker organizing that was a characteristic feature of the IWW in its heyday. Nonetheless, there is still the question of whether the UFCW can capture the organization as it develops.

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