You are browsing the archive for UFCW.

Walmart Organizing Comes of Age: An Interview With UFCW Organizing Director Pat O’Neill

8:18 am in Uncategorized by Amy B. Dean

United Food and Commercial Workers’ Pat O’Neill talks about the difficulty of organizing retail and the new tactics that have been developed, shoppers’ support and Walmart workers’ extraordinary courage in the rolling actions leading up to Black Friday.

Walmart Workers Speak Out

Black Friday Walmart Worker Strike

This fall has witnessed a wave of rolling strikes and other employee actions at America’s largest private-sector employer: Walmart. The actions, spread across more than a dozen cities, have been the first in the retailer’s 50-year history. This week, things are set to get bigger: Walmart associates across the country are now promising pickets, leafleting, and creative flash mobs on and around Black Friday, the busiest shopping day of the year.

One of the main groups involved in planning the actions has been OUR Walmart, a labor-community organization for Walmart employees, backed by the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW). Rather than going through the arduous process of forming a traditional union by signing up majorities in each store, they have developed a more flexible process for employees to get involved early on. Smaller groups can use OUR Walmart to take collective action to advocate for rights and for better conditions. Such advocacy harkens back to the early days of the US labor movement, before the labor laws of the New Deal institutionalized processes for collective bargaining. It may also be a bellwether for future employee action, reflecting an age in which labor law has again failed to catch up with the reality of the American economy.

To get inside insight on the new activism taking place at Walmart, I talked with UFCW Organizing Director Pat O’Neill. We discussed the rolling strikes, the revived use of “minority unions,” and why OUR Walmart is not calling for a boycott.

I started by asking how many employees are part of OUR Walmart.

“It’s in the thousands of workers who are paying the $5.00 a month in membership dues for OUR Walmart,” O’Neill replied. “There are a lot of others that are not paying, but they’re active. On Black Friday, our goal is to have in excess of 1000 Walmart workers striking, and there will be many more that take some other form of action.”

I asked what sort of message the public will be getting on Black Friday.

“The public’s going to be asked to support Walmart associates as they fight for better hours and better working conditions and as they call on the company not to continue with reprisals against workers for their organizing activity,” O’Neill said. “It’s two-fold: we want people to support the workers in pushing for better conditions, but also in standing up for their organizing rights.”

I next asked about his hopes in terms of the outcomes from the rolling actions.

“We want to put pressure on the company and let them know that the workers are upset, ” O’Neill responded. “We want the company to know that they’re not going to squash them in their endeavors to organize by taking retaliatory action. The workers are not just crawling under the table and hiding. They’re actually taking stronger action; they’re upping the ante, if you will. When Walmart changes somebody’s schedule, suspends someone, or terminates them even for their organizing activity, the rest of the workers are upset over it and know about it.”

Pointing to a long history of unsuccessful organizing at Walmart, I asked what he thought today’s employees have learned from some of these past efforts that haven’t been successful.

“I think the past efforts weren’t successful because it’s always difficult in retail, period,” O’Neill said. “It’s not like one plant. The workforce doesn’t have that much camaraderie with each other. There are so many people at the store; there are part-time hours. A lot of workers don’t even know each other. Then you lay on hundreds or thousands of different locations, it makes organizing under the [National Labor Relations Act] very difficult. Even if you get in at one store, then you got to worry about whether you can get a contract.”

“The old way of organizing that we did didn’t work,” he said. “Now we really studied the history, not just what we’ve had with Walmart, but the civil rights movement and the beginning of the labor movement, what the United Auto Workers (UAW) and others did back in the ’30s. That’s where we came up with the concept of minority unionism and trying to hook people up with each other, even if there’s only one activist in one store.”

“Traditionally, it was all about signing cards, then holding an election and hoping you win. You don’t charge dues or anything until after you get a contract. With OUR Walmart, workers put some skin in the game up front with a five-dollar-per-month contribution. They buy into it and want to do it. I think those two pieces are really major differences from the past.”

I pressed further, asking what he thought Walmart associates themselves have learned from the past efforts to organize.

Read the rest of this entry →

Smart Start for the Workers of OUR Walmart?

9:20 am in Uncategorized by Amy B. Dean

This month, workers at Walmart formed a group called the Organization United for Respect at Walmart (OUR Walmart). The United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) union is investing seed money in this new organization, envisioning it as a way that Walmart workers can both advocate for themselves and engage with the rest of the labor movement, even though these employees are not able to create traditional labor structures within Walmart stores.

At a time in history when employers like Walmart do everything they can to deny employees their right to freely form a union in their workplaces, organized labor sees that it must reach out to workers in new ways. OUR Walmart is one of a variety of efforts launched in recent years that blend workplace and community organizing. These experiments mobilize workers around the difficulties they face everyday at work, yet these new groups look more like community advocacy organizations than like traditional labor unions; that is, these new efforts usually frame their activities less around particular workplace wrongs and more around broader questions of economic justice.

In our book, A New New Deal: How Regional Activism Will Reshape the American Labor Movement, we argue for just this sort of a multifaceted labor movement–one that is rooted in communities as well as in workplaces. In the past, organized labor grew when it was part of a broad impulse of working people to better their lives and transform society. If labor is seen as a narrow special interest, relevant only to the small section of the workforce that belongs to traditional unions today, it will grow more and more marginal. Instead, the labor movement needs to establish itself as a strong advocate for all employees in America.

The non-traditional labor effort represented by OUR Walmart has precedents in the “associational membership” drives spawned by the Communications Workers of America (CWA) and others in the 1990s and before. These included The Alliance@IBM as well as WashTech, an effort to enlist employees at Microsoft and other tech workers in the Seattle area. And in 2003, the AFL-CIO launched Working America, a national-level effort, that has allowed millions of workers who do not have the benefit of a union to join the labor movement and work on public policy issues that are important to them, such as health care, green jobs, education, social security, and a more just economy. Likewise, the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) recently announced a campaign called “Fight for a Fair Economy.” In cities throughout the country, SEIU will be working both in communities and workplaces to raise awareness and build collective power around issues affecting all working people.
Read the rest of this entry →