In recent weeks there have been a series of wildcat strikes and work disruptions at Wal-Marts and Wal-Mart warehouses around the country. Workers are threatening to strike on Black Friday, the largest shopping day of the year. Read this post by Josh Eidelson for more background on the strikes. Matt Stoller at Naked Capitalism notes that Wal-Mart represents 2.3% of the US GDP and has massive power in our political and economic space, making these strikes potential game changing. He writes:
The company at this point isn’t just a key purveyor of lower labor standards and a globalized and concentrated supply chain, it is a key tell for policymakers. Walmart data was used by the Federal Reserve’s FOMC to understand labor markets, inequality, health care costs, supply chains, and inflation. As the global recession began to come into view, one FOMC member noted, ”It’s certainly disconcerting to hear that one of the largest private institutions in the world – Wal-Mart – is missing its growth targets fairly significantly.” It is as if the new maxim had become, what’s good for Walmart is good for America.
In the 1950s, the so-called “Treaty of Detroit”, an agreement between government, business, and labor for ever increasing wages at automakers, set the tone for the next twenty years of political economy. From the 1970s onward, the new social contract was increasingly set, not just by companies like Walmart, but by Walmart itself. As a new social contract, let’s call it the “Treaty of Walmart”, emerged as a deal cut between the US government, the Chinese government, and global trading corporations, American society began to reflect a race to the bottom. This strike is thus worth watching – if Walmart loses some pricing pressure because of tactics that impact the company’s supply chain or ability to sell, we’ll be in uncharted territory.
Wal-Mart’s workers are not unionized. The company has viciously fought off small-scale organizing efforts of the years, firing workers who attend to organize their shops and cutting hours of sympathetic workers. The work culture at Wal-Mart is one which is profoundly anti-worker and, as Stoller notes, they have driven a race to the bottom in terms of low-pay and non-existent benefits.
But Wal-Mart is a huge beast in the economy. And if workers are able to force them to concede better working conditions, pay, and benefits, it could have a massive ripple effect outward in the economy. The value would not be merely an economic one, though the prospect of tens or hundreds of thousands of workers getting significant pay raises would fire off potentially massive new economic growth. Rather the real value would be the highly visible statement of some of the lowest hourly wage earners in the country forcing the largest retail business to its knees would prove that any group of workers at any employer in the country can organize their shop.
People get inspired when they see people just like them achieving amazing things that were previously thought impossible. That’s how Occupy Wall Street spread from an encampment in lower Manhattan to thousands of town squares around America – regular people saw that other regular people were taking over public spaces and felt compelled to go out and do it themselves. The same goes when workers try to organize themselves and succeed – the organizing can spread like wild fire.
While the Wal-Mart strikes are happening in a handful of cities around the country, be sure that the company is pouring millions into anti-union “education” in their stores, likely forcing workers to watch videos vilifying
such things as higher wages, job security, and health benefits unions. But that won’t matter if these strikes spread and workers win concessions from Wal-Mart. As Stoller says, victories here would put us in uncharted territory and the organizing opportunities could be revolutionary for workers.