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

ACORN International Financial Justice International Labor Organizing Organizing WalMart
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.