On Black Friday this year, workers in 1,000 Walmart stores in 46 states made history of sorts, becoming the first time Walmart workers had an organized strike. Six days after, workers at fast food outlets in New York City organized their own walk outs, marking what some experts said was the first multi-restaurant strike by fast food workers in the country.
While neither strike made a dent in sales --- in fact, Walmart broke records on Black Friday --- the worker actions made big headlines, and that was the point. With union membership at its lowest point in 70 years, activists have been busy strategizing on how to make unions relevant in a global economy. And they've hit upon one: focus on income inequality and broad social and economic justice issues -- rather than on how to improve working conditions at one workplace.
In fact, organizers are staging a protest in 10 countries Friday at which Walmart workers are calling on company management to stop silencing "workers for speaking out out for changes," according to an email sent out by the Making Change at Walmart movement. It's been organizing the rallies, and includes the non-union group OUR Walmart of company employees.
"It's about putting the labor back into the labor movement," says Dan Schlademan, director of the campaign, which is being led by the United Food and Commercial Workers' Union. "It's not just about building up unions or how to fix problems at one store. It's about sectors as a whole, and the broader problems of how people can't live off the wages they are making."
The new emphasis is largely inspired by the Occupy movement and its populist appeal. "A lot of people critiqued the Occupy movement, but it changed the debate about equality," says Schlademan.
Labor's New Approach: Forget The Specifics
Schlademan says the Black Friday protest was the largest organized action against Walmart in its 50-year history. But what made it notable was that it focused on big picture, social-justice issues -- workers' overall standard of living -- as opposed to the conditions at any one Walmart.
Management always talks "about priding themselves on their relationships with customers, but who do those customers have a relationship with?" one striking worker told AOL Jobs. "They take pride in certain qualities, but those are the qualities in their associates, the same associates they're turning around and backstabbing." Indeed, the pay model for a Walmart "cart pusher" has been revealed to start at $8 an hour, and to rise to $10.60 after six years of "solid performance." (Walmart did not respond to requests for an interview with AOL Jobs.)
"Forget the American dream. This is the American nightmare. What's it like to be a Walmart 99 percenter when the Waltons (owners of Walmart) live as they do?" says Schlademan. Four members of the Walton family are on Forbes' list of the 10 wealthiest Americans, with Christy Walton and her $27.9 billion net worth ranked highest, and sixth overall.
But Is This Approach Helping Workers?
That is up for debate. The Walmart protests have yet to result in policy changes at the company, but Shladerman notes that similar actions have. Take the Justice for Janitors campaign, a campaign of the Service Employees International Union which was started in the 1990s.
In response, the janitors participated in classic labor street rallies and protests, including one in 1990 in Los Angeles when janitors found themselves caught in a showdown with club-wielding policeman, according to the Los Angeles Times. In 2000, the janitors even staged a nationwide protest in which they walked out of commercial office buildings.
But even if the rallies looked like those of any old labor movement, underlying the protests was a social justice philosophy that went beyond conditions at one particular workplace. "We used public events to educate people about the janitors' lives," Schlademan says. "We challenged building owners to not simply throw out a company for employing their own janitors." The Justice for Janitors movement has scored many victories for its workers, according to the SEIU, including the securing of 27 contracts, replete with health benefits, at commercial cleaning contractors in cities like Chicago, Houston and Los Angeles.
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