A New Wal-Mart Workers Association

Labor Organizing

Belva Whitt from the original Wal-Mart Workes Association
Belva Whitt from the original Wal-Mart Workers Association in Tampa, FL

Ottawa The UFCW’s effort to assist the development of a workers’ association for the so-called “associates” of Wal-Mart finally has made its debut after a long period of work, claiming thousands of members and organization on the ground in California, Texas, Washington State, as well as efforts in Florida and elsewhere that are well known.  The coming out party was predictably a piece by one of the last of the labor reporters, Steve Greenhouse of the New York Times.  He interviewed Dan Schlademan, the director of the UFCW’s Making Change at Wal-Mart division.

Schlademan is well respected in the labor movement and rose over his years at SEIU to a key position as officer and organizing director of Local 1 based in Chicago with responsibilities from the Midwest through Texas, including the recognition drives for janitors in Houston, whose success surprised many observers.   Dan is a solid and straightforward organizer, who contributed greatly over the years with insight and imagination to several Organizers’ Forum dialogues where he participated actively, was good company, and a friend.

His argument was stated plainly and is inarguable:

“Mr. Schlademan said Wal-Mart employees should not have to wait until Wal-Mart someday recognizes the union through an organizing drive before they have a voice on the job.”

Greenhouse mentioned our effort to build the Wal-Mart Workers Association among workers in Florida between 2004 and 2009 as the predecessor to this new initiative following in many of our same footsteps and now called OUR Wal-Mart (Organization United for Respect at Wal-Mart).   For some reason he calls it the “foundation-backed” effort which is interesting, though wishful thinking and inaccurate.  We did get some small – and much appreciated — support from several foundations, but as he knew the bulk of the resources came from SEIU, as part of its overall initiative and convention pledge to reform the company, and the AFL-CIO, which also put in staff and resources.  The UFCW was a more begrudging partner at the time, suspicious of SEIU’s intentions at one level and still trying to sort out how to politically sell the new “majority union” associational model that we were promoting within the existing grocery locals around the country.  We had in fact concentrated in Florida for many excellent reasons, but were mindful that it was also easier to develop the workers association model there since no strong grocery or retail locals existed in the state at that time.  I can still remember vividly my conversations with President Joe Hansen of the UFCW and telling him we had good news and bad news.  The good news was that the pilot worked, workers joined, we won issues and grievances at the store level, and people paid dues and built organization.  The bad news for him was that the pilot worked, workers joined, we won issues and grievances at the store level, and people paid dues and built organization, and I did not know if there was a deep enough consensus within UFCW to adapt to a new organizing model with Wal-Mart.  The question was unanswered until now.

While directing the project I wrote several pieces about the strategy and techniques (available under “writing” on www.chieforganizer.org) and talking with Rick Smith, who was on the ground with me in Florida, we could both count a number of conversations with organizers and consultants going through with us the steps we had taken to build the 1000 members we had in more than 30 stores in central Florida at the high water mark of the effort.   It is gratifying to see this new effort and fingers are crossed and we are sending good love in their direction.

The real death knell for the Wal-Mart Workers’ Association had nothing to do with the success of the association or the actions of the leaders and members in the stores on the ground.  The indecision and suspicion within UFCW made our project untenable there, and in the unraveling of the labor movement between the AFL-CIO and Change to Win, where SEIU and UFCW were founding partners, we became an uncomfortable friction point and aggravation at the level of top floor politics that trumped the work on the ground.  When Andy Stern, then President of SEIU, embraced Lee Scott, CEO of Wal-Mart in trying to create a health care reform coalition and UFCW’s Hansen was not in the room, we were dead within days, as Hansen demanded SEIU shutoff support for our project and reaffirm their pledge that Wal-Mart was squarely in UFCW’s jurisdiction.   Within two weeks I had to lay off 20 organizers in the field, cutting the heart out of the capacity of the project.  Diminished and without labor institutional support at best we could only maintain the Wal-Mart Workers’ Association.   Rick and I were able to keep the work robust on the site fighting program in Florida much longer, finally stopping construction of 32 consecutive superstores, and the India FDI Watch Campaign thwarting the company’s development there continues to this day, but despite herculean hustle, subcontracting, other initiatives in California by 2009 I couldn’t keep the pieces together any more on the Florida program and we pulled the plug.  Talking to one of the old organizers with the WWA a couple of weeks ago in Florida, she reported that she still hears from the leaders in Orlando and St. Pete, and they are still hunkered down in the stores, but that’s what’s left of the heartbeat.

In organizing we all stand on each other’s shoulders.   It would be great to see OUR Wal-Mart become the workers’ voice in Wal-Mart.  There’s much to be done and much to be won.  The problem today though is no different than it was several years ago.  To build the organization of workers will take years, huge resources, and deep commitment.  My assessment continues to be that we need 100,000 to 150,000 dues paying members in a Wal-Mart Workers’ Association to be a sustainable force with sufficient voice and strength to leverage the company.

A good start isn’t enough.  We’ve done that and been there.  We need to finally get the job done.  It’s worth doing.  It could change the entire labor movement, and that’s worth the work as well.