As Long as There’s a Walmart, We’ll Need Labor Unions

The lesser of two evils.

When dozens of Walmart workers at nine stores across Southern California walked off the job to protest working conditions and poor wages earlier this month, the now much-maligned labor movement surprisingly scored a long-awaited blow against the also much-maligned mega-retailer. The move to strike (in one form or another) soon spread to some 28 stores in 12 other states, with about 90 total “associates” joining in the strike all told with promises for another walkout on Black Friday if their demands aren’t met.

Compared to Walmart’s 1.3 million employees in the U.S., 90 people seems incredibly miniscule. Symbolically, though, this is a watershed moment in the decades-long battle between Sam Walton’s occupational progeny and the increasingly unpopular labor movement. For the first time in Wally World’s 50-plus-year history, its workers are beginning to see that perhaps there is still power in a union—or something like one, anyway.

That symbolic value, however, has not convinced everyone. Walmart communications VP Dan Tovar, for one, was quick to call the walkouts a publicity stunt by unions to remain relevant. Public perception toward the labor movement, it seems, has changed enough to affect the political and cultural pull that those once prestigious organizations garnered back in the early 1900s. In fact, union membership levels today nationwide nearly mirror those from the start of the pre-collective bargaining 20th century (a.k.a. not a whole lot). In that sense, Tovar could be right.

Maybe, but the 20-odd suits that workers across the country filed with the National Labor Relations Board in the weeks prior to (and during) the walkouts do add a bit of gravity to the situation. The charges run the gamut from harassment to hour cuts and other disciplinary action for supporting the United Food and Commercial Workers-backed Organization United for Respect at Walmart. (Full disclosure: I was a UFCW member at Acme for five years.) Collectively, the suits could result in enormous amounts of back pay owed to quite a few righteously pissed-off employees if the NLRB sides with the workers. Some publicity stunt.

A rather lengthy memo obtained by the Huffington Post betrays Tovar’s blasé reaction to the strikes, with the company appearing officially cautious and in full victim mode in the face of what must be its collective worst fear coming true. “Activists or union organizers,” it read, “have been trying for years to stop our company’s growth and to damage our relationship with our customers and members.”

Bold words from a company that’s heirs are worth something like $90 billion. And yet they’re just swell for paying a buck and change over minimum wage in some cases. But then, it’s basically common knowledge that the multibillion-dollar company’s tactics are less than scrupulous. How else do you become a multibillion-dollar company?

Most of us have probably seen The High Cost of Low Price, or have heard of Walmart’s strategy of privatizing profits and socializing costs by burdening local governments’ welfare and food stamp programs with undue numbers of underpaid Walmart workers. And surely, with 1.3 million employees, Walmart is responsible for nearly as many unemployed, underpaid and overworked Americans in those aforementioned systems.

That such treatment of American workers runs rampant in the nation’s largest private employer should exemplify the need for unions, serving as indictment of the companies like Walmart—Target, Home Depot, et al—in the ever-expanding service sector. It’s undeniable, though, that certain organizations in the labor movement have, overshadowed the deeds done by the supposedly exploitative companies that they had been fighting against in the first place. Even from that perspective, though, Walmart’s striking employees are, at the very least, choosing the lesser of two evils.

But the willingness of 90 employees of a viciously anti-union company known for its scorched-earth tactics in the face of unionization to openly identify themselves as union supporters suggest a more significant embrace than just that. These people could very well lose their jobs for walking off the job without the express collective bargaining power of an official union—and, ultimately, they’re not even expressly fighting for a contract. Even if they were, it’s pretty clear that a company-wide unionization is a long-way off.

However, it is also clear that these workers are using the OUR Walmart organization as a de facto union to represent their wage and conditions interests on some level.

That said, the UFCW’s backing of the OUR Walmart group is only a publicity stunt from the embittered capitalist perspective. In reality, it’s fairly risky for an organization like the UFCW, which depends at least in part upon membership dues and the like to support itself, to back something like OUR Walmart. Not only does that model upset the traditional dues-based revenue stream, but it also alters the card-carrying membership unions we’re all so familiar with. At the very least, this shows a willingness on the part of labor unions to try and adapt to the times. With any luck, they’ll be able to adapt as quickly as their big-box counterparts.

Either way, we’ll find out Black Friday.