Monday, 3 June 2013

A New kind of Toolbox

Buckling under the strain of years of oppressive management, workers across America at fast-food chains and Walmart stores have been demanding improved wages and working conditions[1]. 

This is not exactly unprecedented. Walmart workers have been known to stage short protest strikes lasting one or two days before. Of course, Walmart has always proven large enough to absorb these strikes and to resist any calls for change being made by its workers. Recently, however, workers, with the support of workers’ rights group, OURWalmart, and the UFCW, have increased pressure on the company by staging longer protest strikes. Walmart workers at various stores across America went on strike on Tuesday, May 28. The strike is expected to continue at least until June 7th, the date of Walmart’s annual shareholders’ meeting.[2]

While a Walmart spokesperson has dismissively referred to these strikes as a “publicity stunt”, it’s clear from past practice that Walmart is unlikely to regard these strikes in such a non-threatening way. Walmart has been so steadfast in its anti-union stance over the years it has become notorious for firing, harassing or otherwise intimidating workers who would seek to organize. The result is that not a single Walmart worker in America has union representation[3].

This is reflected in a report from Congressman George Miller (D-CA) to the U.S. House of Representatives, which notes that Walmart has even issued “A Manager’s Toolbox to Remaining Union Free”. The Toolbox gives managers a list of “warning signs” to look out for. If a manager notices workers having “frequent meetings at associates’ homes” and/or “associates who are never seen together suddenly start talking or associating with each other”, the Toolbox indicates that the workers might be organizing.

Managers who see such “suspicious” activity are provided with a hotline to call to alert the company. Once alerted, Walmart deploys specialists who descend on the store to spoil any efforts by workers to organize. And where the old standbys of fear, intimidation and harassment don’t give these so-called specialists the means to quell the fervour of workers for labour rights, Walmart may use other means to avoid unionization. In 2000, for instance, when workers of a meat-cutting department at a Walmart store in Texas successfully voted for union representation, Walmart simply eliminated its meat-cutting departments entirely[4].

That Walmart can get away with this has raised more than a few eyebrows, with Human Rights Watch calling the company “a case study in what is wrong with U.S. labour laws.”[5] The Walmart Toolbox is designed to keep workers down and maintain this broken system, one in which poverty, sorrow and fear are at once means and ends in themselves. The striking workers are trying to use their own toolbox to fix a broken system, one in which fair wages, optimism and courage will become the new normal.

If these workers succeed in getting more decent wages it could have a profoundly positive effect not only on America, but on North America as a whole. The idea is simple: workers earning more money will have more money to spend and will help stimulate the economy. In this sense, the workers are fighting not only for their own economic well-being; they’re struggling to spur an economic recovery that has eluded our political leaders for years now. There are over 1 million Walmart workers in the U.S. The rising tide of their calls for improved wages and working conditions might just be the high tide that raises all of the boats in our economy.

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