Three Lessons the Labour Movement Must Learn From the Fight for 15 at Walmart

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By Alex J. Wood, a researcher at the Oxford Internet Institute, University of Oxford. Originally published at

Social media, the power of reputational damage, and effective communications are powerful tools for trade union organising.

An OUR Walmart demonstration in 2011 outside the Walmart Home Office in Bentonville, Ark. Marc F. Henning/OUR Walmart/Flickr.

Across Europe trade union strength is diminishing. In many countries union membership is falling. Even where membership and collective bargaining appear robust this is mainly due to legal supports rather than unions’ retaining structural power. Sectoral agreements are being hollowed out and the problem for unions is structural. Union power in Western Europe was at its height in the 1960s – a period marked by large-scale industrial production and Keynesian economic policy. Since the 1970s new information, communication and transportation technologies have enabled networked forms of production, distribution and finance to develop in which product markets, corporate ownership and labour process are internationalised. In combination, these processes seriously undermine the possibility for effective formal collective bargaining in many sectors.

If unions in the twenty-first century are to remain relevant, they must embrace what is an ever more connected and networked world. The Fight for 15 movement in the United States provides an illuminating example of some ways in which the internet can benefit organised labour. Below I discuss three lessons which UK trade unions should take from the early stages of the low-wage worker movement which shaped the ‘Fight for $15 an hour’. This mobilisation can be traced to the founding of the Organisation United for Respect at Walmart (OUR Walmart). OUR Walmart was founded as an independent worker association in 2011 by the United Food and Commercial Workers’ (UFCW) union, a union with a broad membership of more than 1.3 million across the retail, food processing and meat packing industries. This article draws on six weeks spent participating in the campaign in California and 43 interviews with workers and union officials (for a more academic account of this work see ‘Networks of injustice and worker mobilisation at Walmart’ in Industrial Relations Journal).

At the beginning of this decade the retailer Walmart was the world’s largest private sector employer with a global workforce of 2.2 million, 1.4 million of whom are hourly paid workers in the United States. Walmart was also renowned for its hostility to organised labour and its ability to defeat unionisation attempts. However, the UFCW had identified small numbers of workers at a number of stores who were fed up with their low pay and hours, and the prevalent managerial abuse which they routinely faced, and were open to a collective attempt at improving working conditions. With the unionised retail sector coming under pressure from the growth of Walmart, the UFCW decided to try something radical: instead of running a traditional union organising campaign aimed at collective bargaining recognition, the union would support workers in forming an independent organisation with the aim of pressurising Walmart to raise labour standards. The campaign was surprisingly successful. Walmart increased starting pay to $10 per hour in its wake, improving the pay of over 500,000 workers, and in addition the local minimum wages was raised in a number of jurisdictions.

Lesson 1. The Transformative Potential of Social Media for Participatory Organisation

Social media was crucial in enabling the existence of OUR Walmart. It provided a discursive space in which workers could interact and discuss their working lives, and in doing so they were able to develop new understandings of their situation. Walmart’s extreme hostility to unions made the existence of this space outside of the workplace crucial. Walmart not only expelled union organisers from stores but also operated a workplace regime of surveillance and fear. Workers faced high levels of monitoring and the threat of being punished if caught talking about unions or collective organisation. This made it extremely difficult for workers to discuss their grievances face-to-face with each other or with union organisers. The importance of social media in framing working conditions as unjust is illustrated by Facebook posts such as:

23 April 2013

You have to be kidding. That’s 1,000 times what an average Walmart Associate makes. . . [link]

Walmart CEO’s pay jumps 14.1 percent to $20.7 million

130 likes, 97 comments, 512 shares

As a consequence of the fear of retaliation, those brave enough to join OUR Walmart ended up being a small number in each store and were thus dispersed across the company’s numerous different stores and/or different shifts. Social media provided workers with the opportunity to overcome this fragmentation and connect with each other and with union organisers. Through engaging in discussions over Facebook, workers were able to learn of similarities in their experiences and provide each other with practical and emotional support. In doing so they fostered identification with each other’s situation and interests. Akira, a recently terminated worker who was working as an organiser, explained this process particularly clearly:

It is basically an outlet for, not only, frustration but also networking . . . seeing . . . what Walmart is doing now to other associates and comparing our similarities . . . just being there for one another so you know that you’re not the only one going through what you’re going through and spreading the word about trying to change Walmart and get others to join in.

Tim, a worker in his late 20s, explained how realising that their sense of injustice was shared by others had a profound inspirational effect:

You’re used to dealing with your individual store and then when you see it is nationwide and you’re talking to other people—it kinda blows your mind away. A lot of workers think that the problems they are experiencing are just this store or it’s just that manager, but everything else is great.

A sense of group identity was further fostered visually by the uploading of videos on Facebook and YouTube of speeches by charismatic leaders and totemic actions. Importantly these connections were possible despite the network being geographically dispersed across a vast country. Bill, a senior UFCW official, explained how social media massively expanded worker communication and interaction:

It’s been transformative . . . there’s thousands of conversations happening every day amongst members of OUR Walmart … this campaign wouldn’t have been possible five years ago . . . it breaks down the barriers.

OUR Walmart also made use of other internet-based forms of communication such as online video conference calls and voting apps. These online tools enabled workers from across the country to link together and discuss major issues, provide back and make decisions. By using a range of internet tools the mobilisation was able to take a novel participatory organisational form independent of the union.

Lesson 2. Expansive Solidarity and the Power of Reputational Damage

A further advantage of social media is that it does not entail rigid organisational or communicative boundaries. In the case of OUR Walmart this enabled an expansive form of solidarity to develop in which community and church groups, as well as other low-paid workers and labour unions and advocates could easily connect to the mobilisation without themselves needing to be formal members of OUR Walmart. For example, social media enabled traditional and self-generated coverage of these actions to be widely disseminated. OUR Walmart claims there were over 300,000 posts on Facebook and 60,000 tweets on Twitter regarding their 2012 ‘Black Friday’ strike. Facebook ‘Events’ facilitated spreading the word about the dozens of disparate but simultaneous actions which workers undertook as part of the campaign and meant that significant solidarity was mobilised both physically and financially. For example, the sheriff’s department reported that at the main 2012 Los Angeles demonstration, there were around 1,000 supporters.

The interconnection provided by social media enabled the amplification, coordination and aggregation of dozens of small disparate simultaneous actions. In sum this provided workers with a new form of collective voice: reputational damage. As two union organisers explained:

Our goal is not to go to election and then [legally] represent but to get Walmart to publicly commit to certain standards – Jenny, union organiser

We are much more about taking direct action… and doing something about it now rather than waiting for the law [i.e. holding union certification elections] to do something – Ali (union organiser)

The force multiplier effect of social media meant that a relatively small number of workers were able to cause significant reputational damage to Walmart. For example, the 2012 ‘Black Friday’ strike only involved around 600 workers out of a workforce of over a million. Nevertheless, working conditions at Walmart gained a significant level of media coverage. For example, during November 2011, the only coverage relating to working conditions at Walmart in the New York Times amounted to just 57 words in one article, whereas during November 2012, there were 2,089 words across six articles. According to a senior UFCW official, the print and website coverage generated by OUR Walmart alone was equivalent to $24 million of advertisements in 2012 and $31 million in 2013. As Michael Bender, president of Walmart West, put it:

the media coverage created the illusion that Walmart’s associates were protesting instead of serving customers.

Lesson 3. Don’t Bureaucratise Communication but Be Aware of Surveillance

Key to this mobilisation was the fact that the union did not attempt to use social media in a traditional hierarchical manner based around vertical downwards communication. Instead, the union acted as a facilitator of network participation, seeking to increase the bottom-up communication. Network forms of organisation do not require total autonomy but rather an orchestrator which can provide strategic oversight. This means that the orchestrator union must not attempt to bureaucratise communication and instead limit itself to allowing the quick and easy sharing of information across the network.

OUR Walmart demonstrates how, despite the union being necessarily bureaucratic, it was still possible for it to engage with networks in a horizontal manner.  Although the UFCW played a vital role in the decision making of the mobilisation, it did not do so in a bureaucratic manner. Instead, the network’s meetings, whether online or in person, were run in a participative manner, departing from the formal process-heavy manner typical of union meetings. Union organisers played the role of facilitators, actively seeking out workers’ views and encouraging participation. The result was that membership was experienced as empowering and workers felt ownership of OUR Walmart and the decisions it made.

Another important role for unions is in providing workers’ protection from the risks entailed by such campaigning. For despite the potential of social media to renew the labour movement, the internet is not a neutral space; its infrastructure, especially social media platforms, is largely shaped by a corporate logic which can enable surveillance. during the OUR Walmart campaign with many worker activists consequently being fired. Unions then must not only make greater use the internet but must also to take on a greater role in fighting for .

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21 comments

  1. The Rev Kev

    Just a minor comment or two. I am not sure about the ‘Fight for $15 an hour’ slogan as an employer may take that to be a maximum position and not a minimum one. Perhaps it is time to re-enable the ‘A fair day’s wage for a fair day’s work’ slogan as to argue against it, an employer has to argue just why he does not want to pay a fair day’s wage.
    I wanted to comment more on the surveillance aspect mentioned. OUR Walmart suddenly find itself under scrutiny by not only one of the country’s biggest corporations but also the FBI was brought into it (because of course they were). The trouble with using Facebook is that because Facebook is so gung-ho about people using their actual names, identification of users as targets becomes too easy. Time to bone up on some operational security (OPSEC).
    The information on how to do it is all out there and the US State Department has a lot of advice for those organizing against their own regimes. Shame not to use it at home as after all, US workers did pay to have all this information developed. Also, Telegram Messenger may be the way to set up private communications as messages are heavily encrypted and can self-destruct. There are also other tools out there and I think that unions serious about their work may have to adopt them.

    Reply
    1. Dirk77

      Yes, very odd that they ed the FBI. I guess I’m naive but what could Walmart possibly say to them apart from outright lying? I like that workers are thinking about non-traditional ways of getting others to recognize that they matter too. Kind of ironic from a corporate standpoint about FB. It allows people to build (flawed) communities, but the dark side is that it helps people to form communities, something no corporate type wants.

      Reply
      1. Jeremy Grimm

        I recall scanning some small portions of the Patriot Act the last time it was a topic and noticing some broad language characterizing what acts might be construed as acts of terrorism. Besides the FBI has long been involved in enticing acts based upon which it could later make arrests. Remember the story of “Tommy the Traveler” from the days of student unrest in the 60s or more recently the “terrorist” plots the FBI designed and sponsored so it could make arrests. I doubt a Corporation with the means at Walmart’s disposal would have to do any lying to procure help from the FBI.

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        1. drumlin woodchuckles

          I remember hearing a legal theory somewhere that if two or more people are present at, or part of, a discussion about “committing” a “crime” . . . even if the discussion is totally theoretical or emotionally steam-releasing . . . . that any of the people involved in, or even merely present at, such a discussion may be arrested and charged at any later time for ” conspiracy to commit” whatever was being discussed.

          Does anyone know anything about this?

          Reply
          1. Fraibert

            (Disclaimer: Post is being made from a phone without all resources available. Believe it accurate but detailsay be wrong.)

            As a matter of criminal law, the general rule is a conspiracy requires an “overt act” or “substantial step” (derails depend on jurisdiction) towards commission of the crime. Something like buying tools or renting a car if you agree to rob a bank.

            Also, as a matter of constitutional law, hypothetical discussion, or even abstract encouragement of criminal action, is protected by the First Amendment. Specifically, as described in the Supreme Court case Brandenburg v. Ohio, such speech must be “directed to inciting or producing imminent lawless action and [be] likely to incite or produce such action” for the government to be able to punish it.

            With that said, see Holder v. Humanitarian Law Project for a case of pure speech being punished as material support for terrorism (the Court having found the Brandenburg standard met). I’d like to write more about the case but unfortunately am about of time to comment.

            Reply
      2. Crack the Whip

        Nothing odd about that. We are entering a really violent phase of crack-down on labour/population in general.
        Look at the militarization and the number of people the police kill with complete impunity. Only logical that the three-letter agencies are involved too to crack computers etc of labour leaders

        Reply
    2. Jeremy Grimm

      I don’t understand the current labor actions at all. Labor has to make Business want ‘real’ Unions back. That happens through labor actions only Unions might control and make manageable. Any labor actions and activities which were effective in the past have been outlawed. Picketing and marching in the streets are just good ways to make the active members of a movement visible and easy to pick off. Advocating for more people willing to risk getting their heads broken — or much much worse — at the hands of today’s new-and-improved blue-meanie bully boys differs little from advocating for martyrs. Twitter and Facebook campaigns just make it easier to identify and pick off the active members. I thought labor discovered a healthy aversion to promises of “pie-in-the-sky”.

      OUR Walmart is very troubling as a union. I don’t believe it’s unfair or unkind to suggest they need a lot of help with their slogans, T-shirts and logo designs, and color choices. Consider their pale chartreuse T-shirts, a symbol that looks like a three-eared rabbit from afar, and barely legible small writing on the shirts? With a better design the union could have created something with a considerable “cool” factor they could use to generate income and spread their name and the thrust of their cause. Anyone remember the raised fist in red from the 60’s?

      The ‘Black Friday’ strike and picketing struck me as particularly pathetic. A word-of-mouth sick-out might have been better, combined with enlisting as many friends and family as possible to flood Walmart stores with customers buying a packet of gum or better the loss-leader of the moment with the lowest price and the greatest loss for the store. They could jam up the lines and while “shopping” make it hard for the real customers to move through the store. They could pick up a few items here-and-there and replace them there-and-here. The more deft might remove price tags or remark items. They could spread rumors to other customers about a non-existent great sale item at the other end of the store.

      Walmart depends on logistics. How many ways might a well-placed wooden shoe take down a key part of the Walmart logistics chain?

      Reply
  2. Carolinian

    The campaign was surprisingly successful. Walmart increased starting pay to $10 per hour in its wake

    That’s a premise not proven. It’s just as likely that the failure to get Congress and the Obama administration to meaningfully raise the minimum wage means that companies are finally exceeding it on their own just to attract workers. My impression is that the social media campaign against Walmart did cause the company to be reviled by middle class people who populate Facebook but had little if any effect on the lower middle and working class people who mostly shop and work at Walmart. If your previous work experience consists of similar low wage work in other discount stores or the low paying textile industry (in my area–now largely moved offshore) then conditions at Walmart probably seem the rule, not the exception. Very few American companies these days are anything but hostile to unions.

    In America what labor should really be fighting for is not “respect” from Walmart but rather respect from a political system that is quite content to ignore their issues and that believes low wage deplorables deserve what they get. Instead of picketing Walmart they’d accomplish a lot more by picketing the DNC.

    Reply
    1. Arizona Slim

      During the 2016 Democratic Convention, there was quite a bit of picketing and protesting. All the more remarkable, considering Philadelphia’s super-hot and humid weather during convention week.

      Reply
    2. jrs

      That’s not what a labor movement is for, just to try to bend a near hopeless anyway political system. Talk about futility, unions are better off taking on employers.

      Reply
    3. drumlin woodchuckles

      If “labor” could directly degrade and attrit Walmart’s profitability until “labor” got a laundry list of specific wants and wishes fulfilled by Walmart, “labor” might get Walmart’s respect if “labor” actually COULD make Walmart less profitable until the wants and wishes were granted.

      What should “labor” do? Individual members and supporters of “labor” should do whatever they believe most in doing, because people do their best and hardest work for what they actually believe in . . . both in terms of goals and methods. One TAG ( Theory Action Group) could fight for respect from Walmart and another TAG ( Theory Action Group) could fight for respect from the DNC. And the two TAGs could even compare notes and co-ordinate strategy and tactics and actions and events . . . if they want to.

      It could be a . . . uhh . . . TAG team effort.

      Reply
  3. Louis Fyne

    “Power of Reputational Damage” umm, ok?

    Dear Wal-Mart, be nice or I’ll boycott you and shop at pro-Union Amazon, Target or Whole Foods!

    Picking on Wal-Mart seems to have some class pretensions behind it. Why not also include nearly every other single retailer and Starbucks?

    The only union retail in my neck of the woods is the legacy grocery chain. If I’m correct Trader Joe’s isn’t union. And of course neither is Whole Foods.

    Reply
    1. Altandmain

      Whole Foods was no angel. It’s CEO was a hardcore libertarian who was firmly anti union.

      This situation is likely worse with Amazon now in control.

      Reply
      1. Arizona Slim

        Back in the early 1980s, I worked at a food co-op in Pittsburgh. Both managers sucked, but the second one took it to a whole new level.

        Our store was located in the historically black Garfield neighborhood, and we were the go-to place for people who wanted something that was friendlier and less corporate than the Giant Eagle grocery store.

        Our neighborhood customers loved our music. We had quite a collection of jazz, blues, and soul records, and let me tell you, the staff competition to get on the turntable was fierce. You really had to have your deejay chops in tip-top shape.

        After Manager Two came on board, he decreed that classical music must be played in the store.

        We, the staff, were flabbergasted. So were the customers. A few months later, Yours Truly left to take a better paying job.

        Manager Two’s next big move was to get the store out of Garfield and into a renovated factory near the eastern city limits of Pittsburgh. A much more upscale venue. Very few of the Garfield clientele followed the store to its new location. Mission accomplished.

        Well, moving the store was accompanied by a lot of other policies that the remaining staff didn’t like, and they rose up against Manager Two. And they ran him right out of that co-op.

        I heard that he became manager of some upscale natural grocery store in North Carolina. And then he went on to be one of the first executives in Whole Foods.

        Reply
          1. Arizona Slim

            Yes. It used to be on Penn Avenue. A very easy walk from Bloomfield and we had quite a few customers from there.

            Reply
        1. drumlin woodchuckles

          Is this Garfield area still a heavily black neighborhood? If so, could such a co-op be revived there if it were run in the spirit you describe before the New Manager?

          Reply
    2. Lord Koos

      I’m pretty sure that despite their shortcomings, Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s treat (and pay) their employees a lot better than Walmart does. If you have to be a corporate employee at least Whole Foods has a rep of being a pretty decent place to work.

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        1. Freethinker

          That generalization does not apply in two Chicago stores I frequent. Turnover seems to be low and employees, of whom I have made inquiries, allege no new stress under Amazon ownership.

          Reply
    3. oh

      FWIW, I’ve talked to several Trader Joe employees and they said that the company takes care of them.

      Reply

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