Walmart Watch: Occupy Reunion, Bangladesh Fire, and Spreading Retail Chaos

after the fire at Bangladesh factory

New Orleans   The protests of Black Friday may be over but that’s about all that’s over on either Black Friday or the woeful Walmart watch.

Occupy’s Role in Protests

One interesting side note of the protests is the critical, though largely unrecognized, role of the remnants of last year’s Occupy Wall Street movement and its widespread activist base around the country.  Looking at stories about the OUR Walmart protests around the country it was interesting and ironic that in place after place, picture after picture, that many of the protests seemed more of an Occupy reunion than a labor-based or union led event.  Certainly, the efforts I shared from Baton Rouge and Tupelo, Mississippi were 100% Occupy actions, regardless of the pale green OUR Walmart t-shirts they were provided by the campaign, and the local reporters, long familiar with the Occupy activists made that point clearly.  A number of the wire photos from the AP and even the centerpiece California action featured signs identifying protestors as Occupy adherents.  Maybe the internet initiated Black Friday protests were a fall offensive in the Occupy reunion tour?

Walmart Bangladesh Supplier Responsible in “Horrific” Fatal Fire for 120 Workers

            Though this was unmentioned in the wire story or the Wall Street Journal story on the terrible textile plant fire in Bangladesh, thanks are due for the excellent reporting by Vikas Jajaj from the Times for categorically nailing the Walmart connection to the fire right down to the Faded Glory Walmart jeans and clothing brand in the debris and ashes in the fire’s remains.  Jajau cites work on the scene by the International Labor Rights Forum as corroboration for this information, but also found clear evidence on the supplier’s own website.

A document posted on Tazreen Fashions’ Web site indicated that an “ethical sourcing” official for Walmart had flagged “violations and/or conditions which were deemed to be high risk” at the factory in May 2011, though it did not specify the nature of the infractions. The notice said that the factory had been given an “orange” grade and that any factories given three such assessments in two years from their last audit would not receive any Walmart orders for a year.

A spokesman for Walmart, Kevin Gardner, said the company was “so far unable to confirm that Tazreen is a supplier to Walmart nor if the document referenced in the article is in fact from Walmart.”

I’m sure it would have crossed the line from reporting to editorializing for Jajau to simply call Walmart and its spokesperson, Kevin Gardner, a liar, but clearly there are no ifs, ands, or buts about it, he was lying like a rug!

There is blood on the hands of Walmart and other big name companies like Gap and Tommy Hilfiger.

Activists say that global clothing brands like Tommy Hilfiger and the Gap and those sold by Walmart need to take responsibility for the working conditions in Bangladeshi factories that produce their clothes.  “These brands have known for years that many of the factories they choose to work with are death traps,” Ineke Zeldenrust, the international coordinator for the Clean Clothes Campaign, said in a statement. “Their failure to take action amounts to criminal negligence.”

Criminal negligence almost seems too legalistic for allowing these conditions to exist, especially when your own inspectors have already identified the risks, and you stand by waiting for disaster to strike, as it has now so tragically.

Endless Black Friday Push

Some folks chafed at Black Friday morphing into Thanksgiving Day, but the last paragraph in a Times article reminds us that it’s all about the buck and that’s the real tradition driving these holidays.

“…Thanksgiving falls when it does in part because of the efforts of the retailer Fred R. Lazarus Jr., head of Federated Department Stores. He lobbied President Franklin D. Roosevelt to move Thanksgiving up a week — and thus extend the holiday shopping season.”

This might be a faceoff  between two giants, the NFL and the Walmarts of the world, but it’s all about the money, honey!

 

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Walmart Shots across the Bow at Union

New Orleans   In the past we’ve tried to suggest that Walmart’s reaction to UFCW’s current organizational efforts are serious and in some cases shrewd, particularly when they pressured their subcontractors at their distribution centers to reinstate workers to avoid obvious unfair labor practice charges in recent months.  Coming on the heels of huge publicity for their work there, UFCW and its OUR affiliate has been promoting “strikes” and other protests for Black Friday, the traditional storm surge of shopping the day after Thanksgiving.  Now, Walmart lawyers have moved to the NLRB to file charges against the UFCW asking for an injunction to stop UFCW from picketing claiming that these pickets are veiled demands for recognition, rather than legitimate protests, and seeking to get the NLRB to enforce the ban on such picking past the 30 day timeline allowed.  Why is Walmart doing this?  Is it a sign that they are threatened by the current organizing or simply taking it seriously?  Or what?

Probably “or what” is the answer.  I can remember the lessons learned by a strike of pari-mutuel clerks at a local racetrack in the New Orleans area 30-years ago that was often discussed by union veterans in this area.  The wags among the old-school union leadership would tut-tut and shake their head in mock concern, saying the union was lucky no one was hurt on their picket line by the stampeding rail birds and bettors trying to get through the picket line and into the track.  The last claim of 88 Walmart strikers is likely to increase for Black Friday, but I will guarantee you that none of them will be in front of the doors of a Walmart store this Friday, or they could absolutely be trampled.

Walmart’s trip to the NLRB is sending a series of warnings to the union.  First, they are trying to make it harder for UFCW to support its OUR alter-ego, and that’s bad.  The UFCW is trying to claim (according to Steven Greenhouse and the New York Times), that OUR might be independent, which is the last thing they should do and would fall right into the company’s trap.  The UFCW needs to embrace OUR as an affiliate for the long term and to pretend it has been or will be anything else is a tactical and strategic error.

The company’s NLRB threat is not real obviously, but is a drag.  It forces OUR and the UFCW to be more careful in their actions and communications to cite real worker grievances about working conditions with real workers.  They will have to make sure none of their picket signs and chants talk about union recognition or something like that.  That’s not that hard, but does force more discipline on the operation and better communication to allies and friends who are excited about supporting the effort.

These are minor irritants that would be successful company moves only if the UFCW allows itself to be buffaloed or somehow disowns its effort.   Organizing Walmart is a long term proposition and the overall strategy being used now is the right one, but the union needs to double down on its commitment not shrink away from it.  At first blush Walmart seems to be getting them to blink even with this head fake to the labor board.  The UFCW needs to stare back and increase the real worker heat and not be confused by the momentary legal skirmishes or the glare of a few television cameras about what kind of organizing marathon that they are now running.

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