US: Taking on the Giant

How Can We Unionize Wal-Mart?

"The union movement must focus on uniting with us the 9 out of 10 workers who have no union. Without doing so, we not only cannot build a broad movement for social and economic justice, but we can’t even win consistently at the bargaining table or in the legislative arena for the small minority of workers who still have a union."

This statement by the Executive Board of SEIU puts the finger on the failure of the union leadership to organize workers in the last 50 years. Under their stewardship, the service industry, representing workers in retail, fast food, child care, etc., has been allowed to become the largest section of the economy, based on low wages, poor benefits, and little job security.

Occupations such as cashiering and food preparation regularly pay the federal minimum wage of $5.15 per hour. Service jobs are notorious for their lack of benefits as well. Only 24% of service workers receive healthcare benefits from their employer. Other benefits such as paid vacation or retirement funds are almost non-existent. Today, only 5% of workers under 25 are unionized, mostly in the service industry.

The SEIU Executive Board has identified Wal-Mart as part of its organizing proposal. The average full-time Wal-Mart employee makes a mere $15,000 a year. A dismal 38% of its employees are signed on to the company’s expensive healthcare plan.

Until now, the debate on organizing has concentrated on the issue of resources. But much more important is the AFL-CIO leadership’s strategy for organizing. Using a top-down structure, organized through paid organizers, it has been estimated that it costs $1,000 to organize one new member. With Wal-Mart employing over one million workers, that will cost over $1 billion!

We need to look back in history to see how unions were created in the first place. In the 1920s, it was auto workers, steelworkers, electrical workers, etc. who were the low-paid workers trapped in hellhole factories of Ford and GM, and who were the newly emerging low-wage sector of the economy. Union leaders called these workers unskilled and unorganizable.

It took the workers themselves stepping up, putting forward living wage demands, and committing themselves to a serious struggle to throw off this dictatorship that created the breakthrough in organizing, resulting in major improvements in their wages and conditions at work. Committing to fight for a major improvement in wages, rank-and-file power, with democratic decisions made at the shop floor level, were key to giving workers the power to change their conditions.

To build such a movement, the unions need to launch a huge public campaign aimed at the most visible public target – Wal-Mart. To get Wal-Mart workers to take the campaign seriously, the unions need to put forward fighting demands like a $12.50 minimum wage, an employer-paid healthcare program, the end to sex discrimination in jobs, and the right of all workers to the length of shift of their choice (whether part time or full time) under the control of the union. A dynamic drive to take on Wal-Mart would energize hundreds of thousands of Wal-Mart workers and other workers and union members to step forward and get involved in this campaign.

The unions need to win support from the communities around Wal-Mart. They need to go door–to-door in the communities explaining the campaign, combined with public rallies outside Wal-Mart. They need to build local organizing committees involving Wal-Mart workers, local workers, and activists from the community. These committees need to be empowered to organize these campaigns with full local democratic control of decision-making.

Ultimately, big retail and fast food giants like Wal-Mart will not surrender without a major struggle. Wal-Mart and McDonald’s have both closed stores rather than accept unions. This mean laying down plans in advance for strategies that hit Wal-Mart where it hurts – its sales and profits. Essentially, the unions need to show they can and will shut down Wal-Mart’s operations.

General Motors was not organized without a huge struggle culminating in a successful 44-day sit-down strike, which galvanized massive support from workers across the country. Neither will we do so at Wal-Mart.

Such a campaign will not only win major improvements in wages and benefits for Wal-Mart employees, but will demonstrate that unions are strong and will encourage workers across the country to step up their own struggles to organize, revitalizing the labor movement.

From Justice, paper of Socialist Alternative, cwi in the US

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August 2005