Nothing To Lose but the Supply Chain

“Tis the Season of Retail Revolt” declared the cover of the free daily Metro this Tuesday, in a rare acknowledgement of labor unrest. The fact that this year’s Black Friday protests reached the cover of the New York tabloid is testament to the power of the latest efforts in retail organizing, which culminated in the 1,000-plus strikes and solidarity actions that hit Walmart branches across the country last Friday (the Metro, unfortunately, neglected to discuss the Walmart actions or any strikes at all, sympathizing instead with workers at K-Mart, Gap, Victoria’s Secret, and other chains operating in Manhattan on Thanksgiving).

Black Friday’s Walmart strikes marked a milestone for twenty-first century labor organizing, not only because they targeted the world’s largest private employer, with its entirely non-unionized workforce of 1.4 million, but because they demonstrated that such a decentralized and fragmented workforce could engage in a new kind of collective action. With the help of social media, Organization United for Respect at Walmart (OUR Walmart) has mounted a nationwide campaign that de-emphasizes the traditional union—though OUR Walmart is affiliated with the United Food and Commercial Workers—in favor of a more free-form organization. Past efforts by the UFCW to gain National Labor Relations Board recognition through union votes at dozens of Walmart locations were thwarted by the company’s carefully designed union-busting campaign, which combines intimidation and anti-union propaganda. OUR Walmart, on the other hand, has found its way through the cracks in Walmart’s union-busting techniques and, in the process, skirted some of the restrictions that labor law imposes on unions, while nevertheless providing a structured outlet for workers’ discontent. Their approach has thus far yielded an energetic but still scattered movement, with a number of stores witnessing single-employee strikes on Black Friday. How’s that for wildcat?

Despite Friday’s milestone protests—especially impressive given the wave of intimidation by management preceding the strikes—Walmart’s growing “retail revolt” continues to face major challenges, and OUR Walmart activists must continue to push the strategic boundaries of labor organizing if they hope to achieve justice for thousands of employees across the country. While retail workers continue to innovate, however, we must not forget that the latest stage of their struggle was sparked in tandem with that of their colleagues further up the supply chain—specifically, warehouse workers in California and Illinois, whose victories in September and October were nothing short of historic. (The groups Warehouse Workers United and Warehouse Workers for Justice, who organized the warehouse strikes in California and Illinois, respectively, are based on a model similar to OUR Walmart’s.) A three-week strike by thirty workers in Elwood, Illinois culminated in a rally and civil disobedience action that shut down their warehouse for a day, reportedly costing Walmart between $8 and 12 million and prompting the company to accede to the workers’ three key demands. Warehouse workers who had been suspended for organizing on the job were reinstated and received full back pay, and new equipment was ordered to improve safety conditions at the factory. By striking at a critical node in the “superb distribution system” that gives Walmart its competitive advantage, according to labor historian Nelson Lichtenstein, the warehouse strikers attacked the logistical behemoth at the joints, threatening to cripple the company on a level that retail workers may be hard-pressed to match. The Illinois strikers’ triumph, however, should encourage retail workers to take similar risks—hopefully broadening their base, multiplying their impact, and in the process offering Walmart’s nascent labor movement an opportunity to launch an offensive on all fronts.

Could workers at companies like Amazon, which rely on subcontracted warehouses with conditions as appalling as at Walmart, also learn from the Illinois strikers’ success? Unlike Walmart, Amazon’s retail end does not have a human face—no “associates” forcing a smile, no familiar cashiers with whom to sympathize. To most consumers, it is easy to forget that there are any humans at all involved in bringing their online purchases to their doorsteps—save, perhaps, for the friendly UPS guy. But behind the veil of Amazon’s Super Saver Shipping are legions of “perma-temps,” who continue to fight for mere bathroom breaks.

Lest conditions in American workplaces seem bad enough, last weekend’s fire at a Walmart-affiliated garment factory in Bangladesh—which killed 111 workers, among them fifty-nine burnt beyond recognition—is a startling reminder that at the production end of the supply chain, twenty-first-century retail giants are still dependent on the kind of labor conditions that workers in the United States fought to eradicate a century ago. Appeals to the NLRB—a legacy of Depression-era labor struggles—have been a critical last line of defense for Walmart workers in the United States; in countries like Bangladesh, where such laws are even more “flexible” than in the United States, industrial workers have little resort to legal protection. The Tazreen fire is the worst in a series of factory fires that have killed 330 workers in Bangladesh since 2000.

In a statement issued Monday, Li & Fung Ltd., the supplier that links Tazreen Fashions to U.S. brands, was quick to clarify—alongside the requisite condolences and a paltry offer of compensation to the victims’ families—that the “tragic fire…will not have any material impact on the financial performance” of the company. Walmart, meanwhile, quickly went into damage control, but given the company’s reputation for tight control over their supply chain, its excuses about a rogue supplier have done little to extricate the company from the situation. Whether or not executives at Walmart were aware that some of their Faded Glory jeans were being supplied by a factory with “dummy fire extinguishers, at least one locked door and bosses who ordered the employees back to work after fire alarms went off,” their business model has undeniably driven a global cost-cutting spree that has necessitated conditions like those at the Tazreen factory.

Tens of thousands of protesters continued to fill the streets of Ashulia, the industrial suburb of Dhaka where the Tazreen factory was located, on Wednesday, despite the arrest of three supervisors at Tazreen Fashions. The protests, which have been met with tear gas and batons, are only the latest manifestation of Bangladesh’s growing labor movement: as recently as November 5, thousands of garments workers staged a road blockade to protest a sudden factory closure and unpaid wages. Protests in May and June demonstrated similar militancy, with members of the Bangladesh National Garment Workers’ Federation expressing their explicit support for American Walmart workers.

From screen to storefront to warehouse to factory, from the brand-name retail facade down to the most obscure subcontractor, from Illinois to Mississippi to Bangladesh, workers share in the plight of providing impossibly cheap goods to increasingly impoverished consumers, themselves mostly underpaid workers. The intricacy of the twenty-first century supply chain presents many challenges for organized labor, but its interconnectedness may offer workers at strategic points a kind of power that they are only just beginning to harness. With support on both ends and points in between, these ripples along the supply chain could start to turn the tide against Walmart’s parasitic model of globalization and issue a warning to its imitators.

For up-to-date coverage of Walmart protests, follow Josh Eidelson’s blog at the Nation. For further background, see also Micah Uetricht’s comment at Jacobin last week.