THE MEDIA UNIVERSE has been dominated for months by election coverage. Meanwhile, out there in America, something has been happening that could, in the long run, be much more significant than any election. The Age of Walmart may be coming to the beginning of its end.
Cracks in the big blue hegemony have been showing up here and there for the past few years. The bribery scandal involving Walmart's Mexican subsidiary did some damage. So have the grassroots campaigns against new Walmart stores in Denver, Miami, New York, and even the college town of Athens, Ga. In Athens, the anti-Walmart banner has been hoisted by the local alt- rock community. Check out "After It's Gone," a music video attributed to Patterson Hood (front man of the legendary Drive-By Truckers) and the Downtown 13.
But all that was just foreshadowing. In October, here and there around the country, the Walmart workforce began to publicly rattle its chains. The movement started in September in the Walmart supply chain, first with strikes by seafood workers in Louisiana, then warehouse workers in Southern California and Elwood, Ill., all of whom went out because of unsafe or inhumane working conditions. Within a month Walmart "associates" had walked out of stores in Dallas, Southern California, the Bay Area, Sacramento, Seattle, Miami, the Washington, D.C. area, and Chicago. Two hundred of these striking workers demonstrated at corporate headquarters in Bentonville, Ark., during the annual meeting of Walmart investors.
This is not a revolution, yet. Most of the walkouts are of limited duration and involve a minority of the workers at the affected store. And this is not a traditional, Norma Rae-type campaign for union recognition. The United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) tried that strategy for a full decade, with no results in the U.S. And when a Walmart store in Quebec did go union, the company shut it down. The current Walmart worker uprising is led by a grassroots membership organization called OUR Walmart (Organization United for Respect at Walmart—learn more at forrespect.org). OUR Walmart is supported by the UFCW, but it's not a union, per se. Its membership includes many Walmart employees, and Making Change at Walmart, the sister organization for community allies, includes not only employees in Walmart's web of subcontractors and suppliers, but also many former employees, family members, and concerned community activists.
OUR WALMART members are, as you would expect, motivated by Walmart's poverty-level pay scale, skimpy benefits, unpredictable work hours, and other traditional grievances. But the leading issue for the fall wave of strikes was a demand that Walmart stop retaliation against workers who protest their working conditions.
This is crucial because the success of Walmart and the whole post-industrial corporate order it represents depends on fear. After four decades of stagnant and declining real wages, four recent years of crippling long-term unemployment, and a decades-long series of defeats for organized labor, the American worker is terrified. But the reign of terror may be weakening. The Elwood, Ill. Walmart warehouse workers won their strike. They all went back to work, and they collected full back pay for their time on the picket line. When people see that it is at least possible to win, they become more willing to take risks.
Walmart is the world's largest private employer, and for the past three decades the company has set the standard for what an employer can get away with—from alleged widespread sex discrimination to unpaid overtime. Now some of the company's workers are setting a new standard for courage and hope. God bless them.
Danny Duncan Collum teaches writing at Kentucky State University in Frankfort. He is the author of the novel White Boy.
Image: Los Angeles Walmart store, trekandshoot / Shutterstock.com