Walmart Organizing Dilemma: Publicity Strikes without Publicity

boycott-wal-mart-shareNew Orleans     We are now several weeks past Black Friday, the annual shopping extravaganza that seems to defy logic, but one hardcore, working mother desperate for Christmas bargains defined it as her annual “Super Bowl of shopping.”   Walmart company representatives have described this year’s day after Thanksgiving shopping blowout as their best ever.

OUR Walmart, the UFCW’s Walmart workers organizing campaign, had declared that there would be more than a 1000 protests around the country with thousands of Walmart workers striking to protest abysmal wages and working conditions.  The company claims that there were no more strikers in 2013 than they had seen in 2012.  Yet, clearly giving the rollup it has to be unquestionable that there were more actions in 2013, whether rallies or demonstrations or witnessing or whatever, but were there more strikers and under any circumstances how do we prove the point and move forward?

And, that’s the organizing dilemma.  What happens when you issue the call for these kind of publicity strikes and people come, but no one knows?   Does it have any effect?  Is this a tree falling in the forest that is heard or ignored?

The silence in the press reports of the results of Black Friday, regardless of the ink before the day was deafening.   There was absolutely nothing in the New York Times or the Wall Street Journal or even USA Today.   Local papers were equally quiet.   Perhaps this should not be a surprise, even though it deprives the organizing of the attention it is seeking from the events, because Black Friday is also the Super Bowl for the print media in terms of advertising, so there may be a lot more turkey sandwiches made of leftovers that Friday than reporters and their editors biting the hands that are feeding them huge full page Walmart ads and inserts.

Tactically, I wonder if the campaign even wanted that much independent news coverage.   Many of the actions were scheduled to greet shoppers as the stores opened.   With the depleted number of newspaper reporters at daily papers, how many editors were going to see the Walmart actions as worth the effort to assign a reporter to some store at dawn?  Perhaps in this public relations war for the hearts and minds of America over low wages, OUR Walmart and the UFCW didn’t really want that many reporters counting the number of strikers this year in the way they did last year, and therefore depressing the union’s claims with contradictory counts?   One rightwing group claims to have infiltrated organizing meetings in Chicago, Raleigh, and elsewhere and claims that organizers were scrambling to recruit workers to show on Black Friday, though that means little, since no matter the number of “yesses” we have, scrambling for numbers is a permanent default condition for all organizers.

In truth the only real semi-comprehensive coverage that I have been able to find of the real strike and rally activity is web-based, particularly from various writers on the Huffington Post.  There were vivid, early morning reports of 40 stalwarts at a Dallas store, including some workers, despite the fact that organizers had estimated 200 would be there prior to Black Friday.  There were outstanding pictures of a larger, later in the day, rally in Los Angeles with several dozen actual workers and a dustup in Secaucus, New Jersey.

Walmart needs to be organized and is a great target for actions by one and all, since they earn opposition every day, but Black Friday is perhaps better strategically as a threat to the company than it is an event that we are actually ready and able to impact.  Even if the objectives at this point are more about attention than economic effect, perhaps we can maximize our smaller numbers with more effective short, surprise, guerrilla actions than frontal assaults that we don’t seem to be anywhere near ready to win yet?  The great news is that we are still pushing.  The hard problem is how to build more traction for the coming years on the various roads available to us.

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Hard to Ignore: Walmart in Bad Trouble

Little Rock   Ok, Walmart is a huge business behemoth with millions of workers and billions of dollars in revenue, but the deafening roar of bad news is hard to paint a smiley face over and pretend everything is coming up roses in Bentonville.

The emperor’s nakedness in India, where the India FDI Watch Campaign and ACORN International are still working to force real regulations and requirements on foreign multi-brand retailers before foreign investment restrictions are relaxed, is increasingly impossible to gloss over.  Despite a fawning business press in India, recent reports noted that the company was only able to open 5 new stores rather than the 15 or so they had projected for 2012, and there are no signs that the numbers will speed up more for 2013.  Walmart can blame the problems of regulations and logistics, but the truth is that the Walmart business model is predicated on domination through control of logistics, so if this isn’t working for them, nothing in India will produce the profits they need.  On the regulations end, ongoing investigations of their corporate culture of bribery are slowing down their ability now to, how can I say, “grease those wheels.”

Michele Obama’s office and her fresh food initiative was forced to put out a release from the White House that Walmart was a “good partner,” after industry reports about the declining freshness of their produce, based on customer surveys, called into question all of their claims of a fresher, healthier set of offerings in their grocery departments.  I hope the White House had more to say than that, because the industry observers were clear that the real reason they are having trouble on freshness is that they have drastically reduced staffing by 15% or more at their superstores, and the stocking crew simply cannot keep up with the square footage and the requirements of constant, timely refrigeration required by fresh food items.   When the nation’s largest private sector employer cuts 15% of its workforce that translates into hundreds of thousands of jobs squeezed out of the economy.  In Walmart’s case, that also means reduced hours for those that are left minding the store.

Oh, and, please, let’s not forget the whole corporate culture of corruption and bribery, first exposed in Mexico and then India and China.  With efforts announced by the new leadership in China that corruption at the top has to stop or the Party is in trouble, Walmart under the gun may not be able to pull the trigger as quickly to implement future expansion.   More than 55% of the company revenues come from overseas operations, so cutting down the growth engine in places like India and China also spells real trouble for their business model.

Banks may be “too big to fail,” but Walmart needs to start learning that retail and grocery chains are failing all of the time.  A look around the malls at Sears, JC Penney, K-Mart, Krogers, and scores of others should be enough to encourage some humility, but that also has never been part of the Walmart corporate culture.

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