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With Biggest Strike Against Biggest Employer, Walmart Workers Make History Again

HANOVER and SEVERN, MD—For about twenty-four hours, Walmart workers, union members and a slew of other activists pulled off the largest-ever US strike against the largest employer in the world. According to organizers, strikes hit a hundred US cities, with hundreds of retail workers walking off the job (last month‘s strikes drew 160). Organizers say they also hit their goal of a thousand total protests, with all but four states holding at least one. In the process, they notched a further escalation against the corporation that’s done more than any other to frustrate the ambitions and undermine the achievements of organized labor in the United States.Anthony Degoege protests outside a Walmart store on Nov. 23 in Paramount, Calif. Walmart employees and union supporters are taking part in a nationwide demonstration for better pay and benefits. (Nick Ut, AP)

"I’m so happy that this is history, that my grandkids can learn from this to stand up for themselves,” Miami striker Elaine Rozier told The Nation Thursday night. Before, “I always used to sit back and not say anything…. I’m proud of myself tonight.”

Rozier and her co-workers kicked off the Black Friday strike around 7:30 EST Thursday night; it rolled from Miami through big cities like Chicago and smaller ones like Tulsa, where overnight stocker Christopher Bentley Owen, agitated by an intimidating “captive audience” meeting, decided at the last minute to join the organization and became his store’s sole striker. After holding back because he didn’t plan to stay in his job for long, said Owen, he recognized that millions of other low-wage workers offer the same reason not to get involved. “Meanwhile,” he said, “there are millions of people in those jobs…at some point, people have to get together.”

By 9 am Friday, Walmart had already sent out a statement announcing its “best ever Black Friday events,” claiming that only fifty workers were on strike, and dismissing the action as a failure. Organizers accused Walmart of making up numbers, and noted that the company’s aggressive efforts to discourage participation undermined its supposed indifference.

The Black Friday strike came a year and a half after retail workers announced the founding of the new employee group OUR Walmart, five months after guest workers struck a Walmart seafood supplier and seven weeks after the country’s first-ever coordinated Walmart store strikes. Walmart striker Cindy Murray, a veteran of the last decade’s unsuccessful union-backed campaign against Walmart, said that after the 2008 election, “I was like, we have to do something different.” (Strikes at Walmart certainly qualify.) Murray said OUR Walmart has had greater success because workers saw it “as our organization,” as so they “finally said, maybe we can be saved. Maybe we can speak out.”

Murray helped lead a Friday morning march of four-hundred some workers and activists to Hanover, Maryland’s Capital Plaza Walmart. Chants included “Whose Walmart? Our Walmart!,” and “Stand up! Live better!” At the edge of the Walmart-controlled portion of the shopping center’s parking lot, leaders from Jobs with Justice asked a manager to commit not to punish the workers striking today; they say he replied that Walmart won’t retaliate, said it never does, and denied that a corporate vice president’s warning of potential “consequences” constituted a threat.

Asked whether the retaliation would get worse before it gets better, United Food & Commercial Workers union Organizing Director Pat O’Neill called it “a real possibility” and said it “would be a mistake.” “I think the workers are showing,” added O’Neill, “that they’re not going to be silenced.”

Retaliation was an ever-present theme of the day: an outrage that drove some workers to strike, a threat that led many more to stay at work, a focus of workers’ demands, and a question hanging over next week. Allegations of illegal retaliation provided workers greater potential legal protection to strike; puncturing any sense of safety about striking may have been the motivation for Walmart’s Labor Board charge alleging that the strikes were themselves illegal. And Walmart’s tactics over the past week may have taken a toll: organizers said that 100 DC-area Walmart store workers struck this week, but maybe no more than a dozen on Black Friday itself (they chalked this up to workers’ desire to cause more disruption earlier in the week while products were still being unloaded). Paramount, California, striker Maria Elena Jefferson said that some of her co-workers wouldn’t strike because “they think we’ll never win” and “they didn’t want to lose their jobs.” She said she hoped today’s actions–including a rally of well over 1,000 supporters in Paramount–would change their minds.

The Paramount rally included the day’s only planned civil disobedience, with three Walmart retail workers and six other supporters taking arrest for blocking Lakewood Boulevard. Other tactics were more common across the country, including subversive light shows and mic-checking flash mobs.

The Maryland protesters split up after their rally into two groups: a larger one which leafleted and caroled at a store in Laurel (“I saw Walmart fire Santa Claus”, “Deck the aisles with living wages”) and a smaller group of community activists that headed to nearby Severn. There, about fifty people walked quickly through the garden section, to the front of the store, and launched a mic check, the crowd echoing an organizer from Jobs with Justice as she read from a prepared script: “We call on Walmart to change. We call on Walmart to stop bullying.” After being warned by police, the group turned and left, chanting “We’ll be back.”

The Maryland rally, like the overall campaign, had close ties to the UFCW; most of the Hanover marchers arrived on a half dozen buses that departed from UFCW Local 400’s nearby union hall. Felicia Miller, a UFCW member working at Safeway as a deli clerk, told The Nation that Walmart is driving down standards for new workers at her unionized store. “The young people coming in, pay stinks now because of Walmart…” said Miller. “Because our companies are saying, If Walmart can get away with it, why can’t we?” She said the sight of Walmart workers on strike was “awesome. I’m here to support them all the way.”

While some observers are already deriding the strike for failing to bring Walmart to its knees, worker activists and staff organizers have long been talking about it as an escalation, not a climax. While on the picket line Thursday and Friday, workers were already talking about striking again, and hoping that their courage this time would embolden more workers to join in the next. “There’s going to be more days that we’re going to strike,” Rozier said last night, “and it’s not going to stop. I’m not going to stop until they respect us and give us what we want.” That’s in line with what the UFCW’s Dan Schlademan promised earlier this month: “This is a new permanent reality for Walmart…. Two thousand and twelve is the beginning of the season where retail workers are going to start to stand up.”

As he marched towards the Hanover Walmart this morning, former SEIU organizer Stephen Lerner credited the campaign with showing that workers, through strategic use of strikes, “can engage in actions that both make them feel powerful and that impact the company, and they don’t need to just spend their life waiting for some [National Labor Relations Board] process to demonstrate they want a union.” Lerner, the architect of the Justice for Janitors campaign, added, “What they’re really showing is, they’re acting like a union.” 

By 9 pm EST Friday, the day’s last major action, a picket in San Leandro, California, with a dragon puppet and a “brass liberation band,” had come to a close. The three workers who’d been arrested in the afternoon had made it safely home. Tomorrow, the Walmart strikers are headed back to work, with at least one exception: a San Leandro worker who wanted to strike but was scheduled for days off on Thursday and Friday. She’ll be striking tomorrow.