Union-backed Walmart and McDonalds’ Campaigns Face Uncertain Futures

DSC_6745New Orleans    The emperor with no clothes is not a pretty sight, and it’s almost as bad when the finger pointing at him is Dave Jamieson, a labor reporter for the Huffington Post in a piece entitled “Labor Groups are Taking on Walmart and McDonalds. But Who Will Fund the Fight?” I don’t have anything against him or the Huff Post, but this was a story we knew would be coming, the only surprise might be that it took so long to get here, and it still seems to catch us unprepared with our pants around our ankles.

The trigger for this tale is the annual meeting of Walmart gearing up in Bentonville, which has also become an annual action by organizations trying to force one of the world’s largest retailers to more accountability and better practices and standards for its workers. This year OUR Walmart is once again on the scene, but now divorced from its supporter and financier, the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) union and trying to go on its own. A decade ago, UFCW did much the same thing with a competing effort called WakeUp Walmart not so much as to organize but to keep their brand and jurisdictional claims alive and compete with the SEIU-backed WalmartWatch and the multi-union effort we ran to prove that Walmart workers could be organized in Florida and to establish that we could stop their expansion with aggressive work and community allies both in the US and India. New leadership at UFCW jettisoned the program support for OUR Walmart leaving them trying to keep the flame alive, all of which seems terribly reminiscent of our earlier efforts.

Jamieson asks the simple question no one likes to hear in public about the viability of OUR Walmart and the sustainability of its effort without a deep-pocketed sponsor. He raises the same question about the multi-year expenditure that SEIU has made to organize McDonalds in companion with its support of the Fight for $15 campaign. SEIU has been resolute in its commitment to these efforts. Both campaigns can claim significant victories. Walmart did move on wages at the bottom. Not to $15 per hour but up to $10 across the board at a cost of billions. SEIU has seen dividends from its Fight for $15 in cities like Seattle and Los Angeles and in states like California and New York where it has significant membership, so they can claim some success from their advocacy. McDonalds does not seem to have moved any closer to the union than Walmart has moved towards UFCW, though closer observers with better information than I have claim that SEIU’s strategy is global, is sound, and may still yield significant organizational victories as well.

And, that’s the rub. Unions are not foundations. They have to eventually see members and dues or some direct benefit from the expenditure of dues or the reaction will be predictable, just as is was with UFCW’s leadership change. And, when it comes to funding, foundations are not a substitute for workers and their dues or workers and their unions. Foundations will shine a bright penny for a minute, but they will never double down to the level needed to get to scale in fighting giant enterprises like either of these companies.

Can OUR Walmart create a real workers’ movement at the giant retailer with a strategy that produces sufficient organization and membership that will finance a long struggle? It’s possible, we proved that in Florida, but that’s a 10, 20 or 30 year project, and would represent the life work and sacrifice of many to survive, and, even surviving, would, having proven the concept, still need support at some point to get to scale. The same transition will need to occur in the McDonalds’ campaign, but hopefully with the continuity of SEIU’s support and assistance.

No one else is going to finance these struggles without workers carrying a huge part of the weight. The publicity is great, but smoke and mirrors is not organizing. David Rolf of SEIU’s big Washington State local, was quoted as saying, “The old model has failed several generations … We should encourage these experiments, but we shouldn’t romanticize it. We still haven’t figured this out.” Certainly, he’s right, but his remarks must seem gratuitous to organizers and workers deep in the struggle. OUR Walmart has proven that the day of reckoning for such experiments comes quickly, so the time for figuring it all out for all of these organizing projects remains now, before it’s too late.

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Please enjoy Beck’s Wow. Thanks to KABF.

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An Organizing Retreat and Defeat at Walmart

UFCW-Walmart-ProtestNew Orleans     As we have looked at the effort of the United Food and Commercial Workers’ avowed aim over recent years to organize Walmart using various strategies, many of them based on our own earlier work, and some breaking new and different ground with OUR Walmart in mobilizing actions using the internet and launching mini-strikes with maximum publicity, our consistent counsel has been that this all could work, if (big if!) the UFCW was committed finally to supporting this campaign for the ten to twenty years it would take to win against the dominant employer in the retail sector and the largest private sector employer in the country. The verdict seems to finally be emerging publicly, that many of us have feared continually, and it is not promising for either workers at Walmart or the necessity for new and innovative organizing strategies and models.

David Moberg, the long-time labor reporter for In These Times, finally broke the news publicly in a recent piece called, “Which Way OUR Walmart?,” that many observers had feared was inevitable especially in light of recent developments.

Joe Hansen, International President of UFCW, had retired at the end of last year. Hansen had been a grudging, but fair and open-minded, supporter of our Walmart projects in 2005, though zealous of protecting the jurisdiction and tight fisted financially, forcing SEIU and the AFL-CIO to pay for us to establish the “proof of concept.” Internal labor politics around the split within the federation, hurt feelings around SEIU’s embrace of Walmart on healthcare reform, and general turf concerns, rather than the organizing results, most of which argued that our organizing strategies were working, made that project collateral damage with only the anti-FDI efforts in India surviving another decade. To his credit though once his grip on the union consolidated, he led the UFCW to expand the Walmart initiative, hired talented organizers like Dan Schlademan and Andrea Delhendorf, both formerly of SEIU to make it happen. From 2010 through 2014 the UFCW pumped up to $7 million a year into the effort.

People get confused. We may talk about a labor movement, but unions are not movements. They are highly political membership organizations, where existing, dues-paying members elect the leaders and pay the local union bills and those same officers. This is different from “likes” or press notices or attaboys. Every project like this whether to organize an industry giant like Walmart, fight for equality, or a $15 an hour raise has a hard “use by” expiration date, unless they end up increasing membership.

A new leader of the UFCW now has the same problem that Hansen did a decade ago. He has to satisfy the leaders and power blocks that swept him into office, and they want more members now in their own unions. So Schlademan is out. The budget is on the chopping block. Trial balloons are being floated about redirecting organizing and resources. There will always be something that waves a banner or a sign at Walmart, but this has the smell of death and finality all over it down to the fact that private donors and foundations have stepped in to keep OUR Walmart breathing a little longer. That worked for us another year or so after the plug was pulled too, but these donors will move to a new flavor even faster than union leaders did, and they will never put down the dollars that the UFCW invested, and that will continue to be needed to organize a company as huge and powerful as Walmart.

Déjà vu is painful and sad, particularly for the workers, not just at Walmart, but throughout the economy who continue to suffer and dream and be willing to fight, if given the opportunity, for a real voice and a real organization to advance their interests and give them voice on the job. Meanwhile Walmart walks away again, maybe a wee bit wiser, but without an organized workforce, whatever lessons they may have learned in recent years, will be quickly forgotten.

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Walmart Business Model Crashing and the False Claims of Foreign Direct Investment

walmart2Kiln     Walmart may be the largest company in the United States in terms of gross sales, but mounting evidence indicates that its business model is collapsing.  The company seems in a near state of panic as return on investment dips and quarterly returns drag consecutively lower.  In a bitter irony the very inequality ravaging the United States may be a fundamental part of the problem, since the company harvests 18% of all food stamp expenditures from low income families, and our constituency has been the slowest to recover from the Great Recession.

A report in the Wall Street Journal indicates the whole Walmart business model is up for grabs.  The new CEO is requiring people to read a book on Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, who claimed to have built his company by watching and then targeting Walmart.  They are even talking about building standalone liquor stores in some communities.

This year, for the first time in its history, Wal-Mart will open more smaller grocery and convenience-type stores than supercenters. At 10,000 to 40,000 square feet, its Wal-Mart Express and Neighborhood Market concepts are a fraction of the size of a 200,000-square-foot superstore. Stores now double as pickup stations for shoppers to collect televisions, bicycles and other items purchased online.

Talking to one of UFCW Canada’s national representatives, Ken Shimmin, recently on KABF/FM’s “Wade’s World,” about the impact of the Supreme Court of Canada’s recent decision affirming back pay for almost 200 workers displaced by Walmart’s antiunion closing of a store to prevent there being a collective bargaining agreement in Quebec, it was clear that the union’s phones have been ringing off the hook with workers who are fed up and want to organize.  Something is happening here.

Furthermore, analysts are finally beginning to notice how few clothes the emperor is wearing overseas, and looking harder at the company’s failures internationally. As even the Journal notes, “It has stumbled in country after country in its attempts to expand overseas….”   As ACORN International’s India FDI Watch Campaign has consistently highlighted in our decade-long effort to force accountability on any big-box operator, whether Walmart, Tesco, Carrefour, Metro, or others trying to upend the mass employment and small scale retail operations within India, the company’s claims there will lead to the same problems of reduced employment and hollowed out retail districts that have been the company’s hallmark in North American countries from Canada to Mexico.

I have only gotten through the first 100 pages of Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century, but it didn’t take me long to find on page 70 that he would join us in questioning the demands of Walmart and others for modifications of foreign direct investment in retail in India.  Piketty says,

Furthermore, if we look at the historical record, it does not appear that capital mobility has been the primary factor promoting convergence of rich and poor nations.  None of the Asian countries that have moved closer to the developed countries of the West in recent years has benefited from large foreign investments, whether it be Japan, South Korea, or Taiwan and more recently China.  In essence, all of these countries themselves financed the necessary investments in physical capital and, even more, in human capital, which the latest research holds to be the key to long-term growth.  Conversely, countries owned by other countries, whether in the colonial period or in Africa today, have been less successful…

If the Walmart business model is up for grabs, as it certainly should be, perhaps the international footprint and the way the company stomps around the world, as well as its labor relations policies and the way they stomp down their workforce, should get the same kind of attention as smaller stores, liquor, and their website.

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Please enjoy Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young  Love the One Your With from CSNY 1974.

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More Battles in the Walmart Wars: Florida, Strikes, and Delhi

walmart-headquartersNew Orleans    The war room in Bentonville must be on 24 hour Def-con 4 alert these days, given the steady back and forth of advances, feints, and setbacks due to its “profits first, workers last” mantra that is a foundation of its standard operating procedures.

            The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) after waiting for weeks before issuing a complaint in hopes of a settlement between Walmart and the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW), went ahead and pulled the trigger setting in motion a long game legal procedure.  The complaint from the NLRB alleges that Walmart disciplined over 50 workers and fired over a dozen in violation of their protected rights to organize stemming from the Black Friday publicity strikes.  Ironically some of the evidence against Walmart comes from its remarks on national TV news reports, so add to the list of firings some people in their communications department that are probably already long gone. 

            There are two sure things underpinning these reports.  One is that if this goes to an ALJ, administrative law judge, hearing to prove the allegations, the delays, appeals, and everything could take seven or eight years.  The lawyers make the money, the workers get pennies even if they win.  Secondly, if the NLRB was waiting for negotiations before issuing the complaint, then this was the time that the UFCW tried to convert its publicity strikes strategy into real organizing leverage and concessions from Walmart.  The rest is show, this was the real strategy.  The complaint being issued may look like good news but really signals a setback for the strategy and a failure to gain organizing advantages, and that’s a damn shame.

            Walmart always spinning joined with the worker advocacy organization in Florida, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, to issue a statement that they were joining the Fair Food Program managed by the Coalition which guarantees an extra penny to raise farmworker wages and combat sexual harassment.  You can follow this right?  We may look like bad guys, but, hey, we’re ok, look we’re helping some poor, immigrant farmworkers.

            Meanwhile confirming that perhaps cutting and running from India finally was the right thing to do, ACORN International’s FDI Watch Campaign (www.indiafdiwatch.org) spread the news this week that the new government in the Delhi political jurisdiction has listened to the protests and has now rejected the modifications in foreign direct investment given to multinationals for multi-brand retail and threatening millions of small traders, shopkeepers, hawkers and others.  A “do not enter” sign is now going up around Delhi, and it will be a while before anything changes that warning sign.

            There’s no ceasefire in the Walmart wars, but the fight is very much still on.

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Tesco, Once the Walmart Killer, Limps out of USA

 

Little Rock  It was only a bit more than 6 years ago when grocery unions feared that Tesco, the giant United Kingdom grocery conglomerate, might have found the secret sauce in both beating unions and Walmart although with labor’s West Coast containment strategies as they entered Los Angeles with what seemed a nearly unbeatable small store, fresher food, hot meals model.  Walmart for decades had had its way with store expansion throughout the country in rural, suburban and exurban areas, but as it encroached on East and West Coast cities, its giant footprint, superstore model conflicted with a host of other urban land use values and interests, so victory was never assured, but at least on a case by case basis was finally possible.. 

            This had certainly been the case with our Walmart organizing in Florida where between 2005 and 2008 we were able to block openings of 32 consecutive superstore proposals along the corridor between Tampa/St. Pete and Orlando.  We had taken our inspiration and often partnered with unions and community efforts in California where many of the same techniques had been pioneered and where land use laws were the best in the country with many jurisdictions outright banning store footprints of over a 100,000 square feet thereby putting a stake in the heart it seemed of the Walmart superstore model, requiring numerous regulatory obstacles to be mastered before construction.

            Tesco’s announcement then that it would take Los Angeles by storm with its small stores sounded like nothing but trouble.  A smaller footprint meant that they could immediately open in some locations then empty that had once held similar stores.  Many of the California tools wouldn’t work.  The UFCW launched an organizing project designed as much to harass Tesco as organize workers.  There were some picket signs.   There were conversations with customers about quality and offerings.  Hopes that the fact that Tesco was solidly union in Britain and that such leverage might give hope to unions in the USA were swiftly found to be futile.

            Now 6 years later, Tesco has announced that it is throwing in the towel.  The cost of obtaining their “get out of the USA” visa was said by their executives to be between $1.3 and $1.8 billion dollars.  What killed them according to reports is that they underestimated the American consumers.  The same reports infer indirectly that we Americans just like big stores, cold food, and stale products. 

            Having been there at the beginning I wonder if the Tesco story might have been different if it had not come in spoiling for a fight, but instead had been looking for love from American workers and unions.  No matter how big and bold, it’s never easy to move to a new country if your message is mainly that you are ready to take on all comers, rather than realizing they have to feel the love and spend their money with you.

Tesco Audio Blog

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Walmart: Black Friday, Open-Source Protests, Hot Shops, and Real Trouble in India

Walmart Protests in India

New Orleans  

“…every battle is won before it is fought.  And it is won by choosing the field of terrain on which the fight will be engaged.” Sun Tzu

Now that the UFCW national action day at Walmart has gone past its Black Friday expiration day, we can say pretty definitively, and largely without either reservation or embarrassment, that this was a successful media strategy for the union and its organizing effort, but certainly not an organizing effort itself.  If that was indeed what it was, then it was successful in getting wide attention for the organizing effort to the public, though that might have questionable value, and mobilizing the support of allies once again in targeting the USA’s largest employer in the private sector with 1.4 million workers and reminding everyone that unions realize that too, which can’t be a bad thing, even if we may have inadvertently taken out a huge national billboard that trumpets our weakness.

So what really happened?  According to the Associated Press story running around the country, who knows?

“Wal-Mart said roughly 50 employees participated in the events Thursday and a “few dozen” employees Friday. Company spokesman Dan Fogleman said that the number of associates who missed their shifts during the two days of events is 60 percent lower than last year. ‘It was proven last night — and again today — that the OUR Walmart group doesn’t speak for the 1.3 million Walmart associates,’ the company said in a statement.  The union group estimated that “hundreds” of employees participated nationwide.”

Steven Greenhouse with the New York Times offered important and more candid details from both the company and the union spokespeople, and:

“Mr. Tovar said the company did not retaliate and was always ready to hear employees’ concerns. He added, ‘The large majority of protesters aren’t even Walmart workers.’ He said the number of employees who missed their scheduled shifts on Friday was 60 percent lower than Black Friday last year.  The company said it was providing employees who worked their scheduled Black Friday shift a special 10 percent discount off Walmart purchases.  Dan Schlademan, one of the protests’ main organizers and the director of Making Change at Walmart, an arm of the food and commercial workers union, said it was hard to determine how many protests there were nationwide. He said OUR Walmart had commitments from employees and community supporters to stage some type of action at more than 1,000 stores. “This is open-source striking,” Mr. Schlademan said. ‘It’s going to take some time to know exactly what’s happening.’ He acknowledged that most of the demonstrators were not store employees but community allies, saying they shared the protesting workers’ goal of pressing the company to improve wages and halt any retaliation.”

I’m not sure what “open-source striking” really is, but I’ve got a bad feeling I have an idea how it working so far.  Josh Eidelson at The Nation provided some helpful, though disturbing insight as he interviewed a young Mississippi worker while trying to advance the argument that the Black Friday actions and the rest of the current Walmart organizing was a test for “high stakes on-line organizing,” which is very doubtful and perhaps more distressing to organizers.

“One of them is Cory Parker. A 23-year-old Tupelo, Mississippi worker, Parker said he lost his house because of Walmart’s low wages, only to have a manager tell him, “Why don’t you just go and live at a homeless shelter?” “I was already trying to start a movement in our store,” said Parker. So when a co-worker sent him a message on Facebook pointing out OUR Walmart’s page, “from the very first time I read that…I had set my mind to, ‘This is what I need to do.’” The Facebook page led Parker to an OUR Walmart conference call moderated by Mary Pat Tifft, a long-time OUR Walmart leader in Wisconsin. “She spoke directly to me,” said Parker. After he spoke up on the call, she found him on Facebook and arranged a one-on-one phone conversation. Since then, OUR Walmart has sent organizers to Mississippi to help Parker organize Tupelo workers for the strike.  Parker said that the web has also helped him withstand intimidation. After he became more vocal at work, he said, management tried to discourage him with group “captive audience” meetings and one-on-one threats. Parker said he discusses these experiences on Facebook with Walmart worker activists in other states who’ve experienced the same thing. “They will actually tell me it is OK to be scared,” said Parker, and they help ensure that “I don’t lose my sight.”

The Baton Rouge Advocate, which is now the daily paper where I live, gave more evidence here as they interviewed the solidarity Walmart worker protestor at a Walmart store in Baker in East Baton Rouge parish.

“Sparks [Walmart worker – customer service manager] said she has worked at the Baker Wal-Mart for three years and led a similar protest this spring.  She said other employees expressed interest in joining the protest but backed out.  She said that while her protest is protected speech, she wasn’t sure whether her decision to picket her employer would get her laid off or her hours cut.”

As an organizer, pulling all of these loose threads together seems to say two things to me, neither of which have anything to do with “open-source striking” or the claims for on-line organizing techniques.  First, that the UFCW drive is still suffering from a lack of lists, either because of the inability or unwillingness still to buy such lists or build such lists through normal and usual databasing, and then invest in sufficient on-the-ground organizing resources to do the real work of doorknocking, building organizing committees, and putting together real organizations in the stores.  Secondly, all of this looks like “hot shop” organizing using the internet, rather than sitting in the union hall waiting for the phone to ring.  Instead of the so-called organizing “leads” in the stores coming over the transom, they were zipping in through email or a Facebook message.  Those are great tools, but as organizers we know that whether old school or new school ways that we get the information, “hot shop” contacts almost never reveal hot shops for real organizing, but simply activists, and more often than not experience has proven in thousands of organizing drives, these are usually activists that despite their grievances and often courage, are unable to build a real base in their store.  If every unhappy worker was inherently a union organizer, then the union density in the USA would be over 90%, because workplaces are overflowing with issues and unhappiness.

The evidence for these conclusions is stark.  Even in the heartland of UFCW’s Walmart campaign, where the union directed the AP, there was one rightfully nervous worker from Englewood who walked out of the Walmart near there after working Thanksgiving Day.  Sister Sparks in Baton Rouge is an activist, but couldn’t pull anyone out with her at all.  She might wonder about retaliation, but this is not a real worry for her.  She’s still there more than 6-months after an earlier protest in the spring last year and she’s still a “manager,” though I hope for her sake that’s not a supervisory position in reality or what she believes is protected activity, isn’t at all.

How about Parker?  Brother Parker in Tupelo got a lot of support from the on-line community, and that’s great, but despite all of that the reality is unsettling.  The UFCW and OUR Walmart reportedly sent organizers down there to help him organize, but the results are disappointing.  The newspaper that covers Tupelo filed the following report on the protest yesterday:

“At 8 this morning, six people were in the grassy area next to the main parking lot entrance to protest Walmart’s low pay, benefits and “retaliation” against employees “speaking out.” We were there for about 40 minutes. Two Walmart associates were supposed to join them, but we didn’t stay long enough to see if they did.”

On-line support doesn’t seem like it was enough for Parker.

Sun Tzu, the Chinese master strategist and tactician, advises that we must always be careful to chose the ground where we will fight if we hope to win.  Black Friday every year is a national tsunami of media attention.  Walmart, not surprisingly, sweetened the pot for its workers to stay on the job with a slight discount.  They claim in other announcements that yesterday was their best Black Friday ever.  Probably hyperbole, but there’s no question that Black Friday is their ground, not ours!  The universal rule of modern organizing continues to be that “the threat is more powerful than the action,” and Black Friday might be a good example.

Meanwhile even if this were a press strategy, the real ground where the fight is being waged most seriously and furiously against Walmart continues to be in India where ACORN’s India FDI Watch Campaign is still in the thick of our long fight there.  As near as I could find The Wall Street Journal was crystal clear on what was “real” news and threatened Walmart with a picture of the demonstrators, including our own, trying to scale the police barricades in front of the Parliament building in Delhi yesterday protesting the government’s attempt to relax FDI standards in multi-brand retail.  According to the Journal:

 “Uproar over the retail foreign investment policy has dominated the first few days of Parliament’s winter session, which began Thursday, stalling all other business.  The main opposition Bharatiya Janata Party wants the government to agree to a debate on the retail rules, including a discussion of the Wal-Mart bribery probe….”

The New York Times and the Journal  led their stories on Walmart with the problems in India where yesterday Walmart suspended certain employees because of their on-going bribery investigation.  Both quoted, “The Economic Times, English-language daily, reported that the suspended employees included its chief financial officer and its legal team….”  Walmart can call them “associates,” but anywhere else it is clear that when you suspend your legal department in India for allowing the bribes to take place in all likelihood and the CFO for approving and releasing, and probably covering up, the actual payments, this is high level corruption in a corporate gangster culture.

This is the story that ran on the front page of the Times business page while the Walmart protests were buried in business page 5.  The Journal ignored the protest period and ran the bribery scandal on page 4 of that section.

The company is vulnerable in the USA, India, Mexico, and elsewhere around the world, but we have to pick our ground, and we have to fight them with real organizing weapons, not the new “smoke and mirror” internet machine.

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