The key word to describe the wave of worker walkouts and protests against Walmart in recent weeks: unprecedented. As Walmart warehouse strikers in Illinois go back to work with full back pay
, other workers were striking. Josh Eidelson captures just how unprecedented
For the second time in five days—and also the second time in Walmart’s five decades—workers at multiple US Walmart stores are on strike. [Tuesday] morning, workers walked off the job at stores in Dallas, Texas; Miami, Florida; Seattle, Washington; Laurel, Maryland; and Northern, Central, and Southern California. No end date has been announced; some plan to remain on strike at least through [Wednesday], when they’ll join other Walmart workers for a demonstration outside the company’s annual investor meeting in Bentonville, Arkansas. [Tuesday's] is the latest in a wave of Walmart supply chain strikes without precedent in the United States: From shrimp workers in Louisiana, to warehouse workers in California and Illinois, to Walmart store employees in five states.
A Walmart spokesman gives a threefold defense: Walmart jobs are great, this is all a "publicity stunt" by the United Food and Commercial Workers union, and it's really not that many people striking or otherwise taking action when you consider Walmart's roughly 80 gajillion employees.
Everybody knows enough about Walmart jobs to laugh at that first claim. Walmart is a terrible, abusive employer that engages in widespread discrimination, has been hit with repeated judgments for wage theft, and uses contractors (tightly controlled by Walmart) that offer dangerous working conditions. And that's in addition to pay rates so low that many Walmart workers have to rely on food stamps, Medicaid, and other public assistance to get by.
As for the second claim, sure, in the world of today, media attention is an important weapon David carries when he takes on Goliath. But these are Walmart workers walking out, Walmart workers talking about the abuses and retaliation and poverty and unsafe conditions they face. The fact that a union is helping them organize (and organize not even to join the union, just to seek better treatment as non-union workers) does not obscure the fact that these workers are risking their jobs and livelihoods to protest. Similarly, it's true that only a small minority of Walmart workers have to date walked out or filed formal complaints or lawsuits. But this level of protest and walkouts against Walmart is a first in the company's 50-year history. That's not something to dismiss—unless you're a Walmart flack and your job depends on dismissing it.
Before these work stoppages, "the other stuff had been so predictable from Walmart’s point of view," Columbia University political scientist Dorian Warren said yesterday. "They’ve always had activists coming to Bentonville. They’ve never had a disruption in their supply chain." Warren, who’s co-writing a book on Walmart, said the strikes by warehouse workers and store employees are a game-changer: "There was ‘Before,’ and there was ‘After,’ and we just crossed that line."
These are vulnerable, low-wage workers up against a giant corporation with a lot of experience crushing its employees, but they pushed across that line. They need public support to keep pushing—and it's not just Walmart workers who stand to lose if Walmart's employment model and rampant law-breaking continue to be accepted and profitable.
2:06 PM PT: The walkouts continue spreading and have now hit 12 cities. The number of workers involved remains small, but their movement is growing and hopefully their courage will inspire their coworkers to join them.