Walmart Has Sprung a Leak

Belated upheaval in the world's largest retail chain

by by Marcel Bertsch-Gout

illustration by by Robert Sandler

Walmart does not take union action lightly. It does a lot to warp its two-million-plus employees’ perception of their rights from the moment they are hired. Aggressively anti-union training video rhetoric initiates a culture of fear among new employees, further spurred on by anti-union antics like Walmart’s banning of union representatives from handing out fliers outside its stores, or, simply firing union-sympathizing workers. The chain does not hesitate to stifle fledgling activism by closing entire stores either, as employees at a Quebec-based store found out. These are all illegal practices as outlined by the National Labor Relations Act, but the legal cost of these actions hardly offsets the benefits of unorganized labor, and thus Walmart has continued to throw its weight around. In view of these difficulties, the recent spate of strikes Walmart is experiencing is not to be brushed off.

Some salaried workers at Walmart began a strike on Tuesday, October 9, in Dallas, Miami, Seattle, Laurel, and numerous cities in California.  It was the chain’s second ever multi-store strike, mushrooming from the first ever multi-store strike the previous Thursday, a one-day ordeal confined to southern California in which no concrete concessions were made. Marching circles could be seen on the black tarmac contiguous with the storefront, along with signs whose words leaped off the paper. “On strike for the freedom to speak out,” one read. Another: “respect our freedom.” The most prominent demands insisted that Walmart respect rights to collectively bargain, raise wages, and address substandard working conditions.

With the benefit of hindsight, it seems as though the October 4 and 9 strikes were the culmination of a string of strikes that were set off in June, when a strike broke out at C.J.’s Seafood, a provider of seafood to Sam’s Club, a Walmart subsidiary. The strikers were guest workers from Mexico, in the US on temporary work visas. They had been forced to work—and often locked in the factory—between 16 to 24 hours a day, generally from 2 AM to 6 PM, on less than 60 percent of minimum wage, or $2 for every pound of crawfish peeled. In instances when they refused to work, they were threatened with a shovel used to stir crawfish, and in one case their families were threatened. During sleep hours, they were shuttled into company-controlled, vermin-infested trailers. After one failed 911 call, a worker managed to pluck up the courage to contact the National Guestworker Alliance, revealing the scandal and awarding $76,608 in back-pay and permanent visas to 73 workers.

When the Department of Labor confirmed labor abuses, Walmart repudiated business ties with C.J.’s Seafood. But this withdrawal was not a legal imperative. As C.J.’s Seafood is not technically under the jurisdiction of Walmart, the retailer was not obliged to take any responsibility for the human rights violations that occurred. Yet they were certainly responsible for them in part because Walmart’s size meant it was far and away the largest purchaser of seafood from this supplier, allowing it to economically bully until it received prices that were untenable, save for desperate measures.

After the C.J.’s Seafood strike fizzled, a second strike at an NFI-owned Mira Loma warehouse broke out in September, in which workers claimed they were working in temperatures of up to 120 degrees with no access to clean water or regular breaks. Management allegedly retaliated when they protested abusive conditions by driving a forklift at them. This strike rallied 65 workers that protested for 15 days and marched 50 miles to Los Angeles. Despite many sources stating otherwise, the warehouse was a subcontractor of Walmart’s which had to follow Walmart regulations, but without holding Walmart legally bound to any abuses. In addition, the subcontractor was responsible for the workers in tandem with the temp agency from which they were hired. Worker jurisdiction can be tricky in this way, but it is no hapless legal accident—it is a strategy for extensive companies like Walmart to shirk responsibilities. Initially, Walmart spokesman Dan Fogelman claimed that these workers claims were “unfounded,” but, after the incident received media attention, eventually promised “a protocol of random inspections by third-party inspectors.”

This second strike seemed to have resonated with nearby Walmarts. It culminated in an October 4 strike at a Walmart-owned retail store, which quickly fed into the most recent, larger October 9 strike. Vocal Walmart worker Evelin Cruz told Salon that she believes that the NFI warehouse strike was “what really led us to do something.” The Walmart strikes had fed off each other’s valor, a pattern that was perhaps necessary considering the endemic anti-union culture present in Walmart stores. It was this unusual, extreme grassroots mechanism that led to the current strike’s unorthodox potency.

Walmart may have gotten what they wanted in preventing union-organized striking, but the recent retail strikers have circumvented union contracts altogether. They were led by outfits like Organization United for Respect at Walmart (OUR Walmart), Warehouse Workers United, and Warehouse Workers for Justice, which are union-funded, but organizationally autonomous groups which do not engage in collective bargaining, but rather help workers organize to protect their rights, and advocate for policies and regulations to improve job quality and safety. Barry Eidlin, a former labor organizer and sociologist from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, believes the Walmart strikers’ affiliation with these groups to be an essential breakthrough. In an article for, he called it “turning back the clock on labor relations” to times before unions were legal and remarks that “the fact that groups of marginalized workers are now willing to risk going on strike without traditional union protections and outside of traditional collective bargaining relations shows how broken the current labor rights regime is in the U.S.”

This old, but in the current labor climate, pioneering strategy allows workers to circumvent bureaucratic bargaining guidelines, in which an official bargaining unit must be established, and contracted with an employer and union, before workers engage in collective bargaining and agree on a union contract. Labor abusive superstores, and their poster child, Walmart, essentially have a lock on this process. OUR Walmart, by contrast, has no officially sanctioned process and simply involves signing up for mailers and workers getting involved on their own terms. The activism involved is more hands-on for the employees themselves. In a phone interview with the Independent, Eidlin expressed his belief that the archaically harsh labor situation is being met with aptly archaic methods of worker revolt and seems optimistic that “in combining the risky and disruptive tactics of old with new organizational forms, the latest round of organizing at Walmart could be just the ticket.” But he also warned that “the risk is that what they’re doing is very novel but also very risky because they are going outside of the established legal framework and so the endgame isn’t necessarily clear. It is not clear what workers can do to institutionalize the gains they win. How are they going to make sure whatever gains they win today aren’t just taken away tomorrow as soon as everybody is not looking?” A leaked memo distributed to Walmart management embodies both Dr. Eidlin’s optimism and his caveat. While it stridently censures striking workers, it instructs managers not to discipline associates. It also says that these gains are not “institutionalized,” meaning they could be rescinded as soon as the media spotlight turns elsewhere.

Most recently, Walmart employees are using their newfound solidarity to threaten action on the busiest day of the year, Black Friday, if Walmart does not stop retaliating against workers trying to organize. This could include “non-violent action, from flash mobs to strikes to public awareness,” said Colby Harris, a Walmart worker and member of OUR Walmart, in an interview with the Huffington Post. In response to this threat and to the recent uprisings, Walmart’s spokesperson, Fogleman, insists that Walmart “has some of the best jobs in the retail industry—good pay, affordable benefits and the chance for advancement,” and has repeatedly brushed aside outrage to insist that every one of Walmart’s stores is “open for business.”

MARCEL BERTSCH-GOUT B'13 denies ever having favored the color blue as a child.