Teaching Walmart Lessons and Learning Lessons for Amazon and Others – Part IV

Labor Organizing WalMart WARN

Pearl River The second leg of the stool was building a community-based organization in order to block Wal-Mart from building new supercenters.  To engage that fight, we build WARN, Wal-Mart Alliance for Reform Now, as a broad coalition of unions, community and civil rights organizations (including ACORN chapters obviously), environmental groups, and civic associations in instances where they would be impacted by traffic and property values from new stores.  In addition to the community organizing team, we supported this work with research reports that debunked the wages claimed by Wal-Mart in Florida (we were able to identify Wal-Mart workers from the way state unemployment data was sorted) and advance site location work.  We found several experts at the University of Florida in Gainesville who specialized in developing algorithms to help stores determine future locations.  They agreed to train our researchers, so once skilled adequately, we were able to determine in our target area where Wal-Mart – or generally any big box operation – would be likely to site a store for expansion.  Another one of our team would reach out to every planning and zoning department in the footprint on a weekly basis to determine if there was any activity around these sites from purchases to applications.  

We were able to nip some efforts in the bud.  Others we had to fight from proposal to council hearings and in one case, in Sarasota Springs, through a direct ballot local initiative.  We were able to bring police into the alliance because of traffic and safety concerns.  We were able to bring property owner associations into the alliance in some cases on value issues.  We blocked some permits on company efforts to build in wetlands and environmentally prohibited areas.  During the life of the project within our footprint we blocked 32 straight Wal-Mart superstore expansion efforts.  Using a community base and alliances, we were able to develop leverage we hoped would aid the organizing efforts.

Lastly, Wal-Mart had widely publicized that its huge growth in the future would be achieved by expanding in India, as it had done in China.  Enlisting the support of the AFL-CIO Solidarity Center and to a lesser degree UNI Global Union, the international global federation, we quickly determined that any expansion in India would require amending the rules on foreign direct investment, which despite neoliberal revision in the country would still require modification because multi-brand retail was still restricted.  We then organized the India FDI (Foreign Direct Investment) Watch Campaign, a coalition effort of unions, traders, hawkers, and others to oppose any changes in FDI for retail.  It’s a long story in itself, but we were successful in blocking any changes for a decade, as ACORN continued to support the effort even after the unions had withdrawn support from the rest of the campaign.  We had made promises, and they were meant to be kept.  Even now, Wal-Mart has not been able to expand significantly in India and for them, or their competitors to do so, is very difficult since we were able to win significant concessions in the Parliament that the company still sees has prohibitive.  

In this hybrid community-labor model applied to Wal-Mart, we established several things.  Workers wanted a union and would join and pay dues, without any promise or prospect of an election or a collective bargaining agreement.  We could stop expansion of Wal-Mart locally and internationally to build leverage on the company to support the workers organizing.  

Nonetheless in the real politic of American labor organizing by 2008, SEIU and UFCW were involved in political and jurisdictional disagreements and part of the price of their trying to keep their alternative federation alive in Change to Win was their withdrawal from the project, forcing us to lay off most of the organizing staff.  We were already at a juncture where we needed more lists to keep building and a deeper commitment, so this was crippling.  We were able to keep some of the work alive for almost a year after that based on outside funding raised for the campaign.  The work in India was taken over by ACORN International and absorbed as part of our Delhi office of ACORN India and continues to this day.

What does this say about other efforts to organize mass employers, like Amazon?  Maybe nothing, maybe a lot.  

When I met with Joe Hansen, then the president of UFCW, to give him a report on the work, I told him the good news was that we had succeeded on all of our main objectives, but the bad news is that for this model to work it would require a significant and long-term multi-year investment to get to 200,000 or more members, where the union would have enough power within the company to force de facto recognition and detente.  It could take ten or twenty years, but it would work.  He appreciated the point, but wasn’t ready to go there.

A similar challenge faces any effort to organize Wal-Mart still, or Amazon, or any mass employer.  Organizers can fashion the strategies and tactics for almost any target.  Workers will respond, if, and when, asked to act on their issues.  Companies always have vulnerabilities that can be exploited.  

Nonetheless without deep commitment – and pockets – to stay in it to win it, and the chance to adapt the organizing to what works and is most effective in the action and reaction of organization and workers to company response and so and so on, no plan will work no matter how good or well executed.  Without that kind of commitment, it’s just dare to struggle without daring to win.  Workers from time to time in different formations will be able to push Amazon and the others back in some battles, but won’t be able to win the war without putting all the pieces together and having the time and resources to engage the companies for as long as it takes.