Strikes against American retail giant Walmart, which began in warehouses operated by Walmart’s suppliers in southern California and Illinois, have now spread to 28 stores in twelve states across the USA.
The Illinois warehouse workers have already returned to work, having secured their key demands of reinstatement of all who were fired or suspended for on-the-job organising, as well as full back pay for all workers who took part in the three-week strike.
The workers’ grievances against Walmart are numerous. Attacks on workers’ rights include non-payment of overtime, non-payment for all hours worked, health and safety problems, below-minimum-wage salary levels, unilateral changes and cuts to hours, and management bullying and intimidation. In interviews, and in placards on picket lines, many strikers have described the strike as being simply for the right to speak up about conditions at work without fear of retaliation from managers.
Speaking on Amy Goodman’s “Democracy Now” radio show, Walmart worker Mike Compton explained how the strikes are the result of workers simply being pushed too far by bosses. He said: “I work in a Wal-Mart warehouse in Elwood, Illinois. The conditions are terrible… a lot of safety issues. We have broken equipment that was not getting repaired. They just push us to work at a rate that makes it even more unsafe. We finally just had enough, and we started to organise. We started a petition, asking for some basic rights. And our managers refused to take it. So, that was kind of the final straw. We decided that was it, and we walked out that day.”
Most of the workers involved in the strikes are not unionised, but they are being supported by union-backed workers’ centres such as Warehouse Workers United (affiliated to the “Change To Win” coalition, one of America’s two main union federations), Warehouse Workers for Justice (connected with the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers, which organised the 2008 occupation of the Republic Windows and Doors factory in Chicago), and Our Walmart (linked to the United Food and Commercial Workers).
Although the strikes currently involve only small numbers of employees in each store, their significance is enormous.
They are a demonstration of how, even when bosses go to huge efforts to prevent workers from organising and fighting back, it only takes on group of workers to create the first spark which lights a fire.
Described by rank-and-file magazine Labor Notes as “US labour’s most powerful foe”, Walmart represents 2.3% of America’s GDP. It is the largest private employer on the planet, as well as the largest retailer. Until this strike wave, a 2006 dispute in a Florida store was the only acknowledged industrial dispute between Walmart and its employees in America. It is notoriously anti-union, providing extensive training for its managers in how to keep their stores and warehouses union-free, and creating a draconian work culture which has seen workers sent home or suspended for wearing union t-shirts or badged.
A number of labour movement commentators in America have heralded the strike wave as a potential “game-changer”.