If you check mainstream news on a regular basis, you surely know there’s a presidential election today, and you’ve doubtless heard about the nasty hurricane that slammed the east coast last week.
But you probably haven’t heard as much about the series of strikes that have been brewing for over a month now against the single largest private employer, not only in America but the world: Walmart.
On Oct. 4, Walmart workers at various stores in southern California staged a one-day walkout of their jobs; the month before that, there were similar strikes of workers throughout Walmart’s supply chain. Since then, small-scale strikes have erupted at stores throughout the country. There have been no complete walkouts of all employees in a given store, but at least a handful of workers from store locations in Oklahoma, Dallas, Seattle—a total of 28 stores in 12 different states—have participated.
Walmart has been controversial for years. Supporters praise the company for offering low prices to consumers and employing large numbers of people; detractors say most of those jobs come with low pay and bad working conditions. Now, Walmart workers are trying to organize a single massive strike on Black Friday (the day after Thanksgiving, and the “official” start of Christmas shopping season). And they’re using social media to muster the troops.
Walmart workers might be reluctant to strike for fear of losing their jobs, especially the ones who live in states with “at-will” employment laws. But Facebook and other outlets make it easier for supporters to educate would-be strikers about what rights at-will workers do have. On the “OFFICIAL Support Walmart Strikers on Black Friday” Facebook page, for example, Chris Haros, Jr. wrote:
“Hey! I thought I saw a post from NC, Fayetteville area? Anyway, I took an interest because if y'all want to strike and have some issues over the at-will (understandable..), I just wanted to mention that CA is at-will, too, but we walked out and are still on the job. At-will employment does not exclude you from PROTECTED concerted activity under the National Labor Relations Act. Its the law of the land :). I would suggest teaming up with an organizer in your area for more details.”
Under U.S. law, workers do indeed have the right to strike without losing their jobs, provided certain conditions are met.
Last month’s strikes were supported by the union-backed groups Making Change at Walmart and the Organization United for Respect at Walmart, whose Facebook page says it is “OUR Walmart for short. We, the hourly Associates, are the life-blood of Walmart and we're coming together to win respect on the job. Join us.”
OUR Walmart launched in June 2011. Walmart has been notoriously resistant to union-organizing attempts among its employees—when butchers at a Texas Walmart voted to unionize in 2000, Walmart eliminated all butcher departments in its U.S. stores—so, although OUR Walmart has support and backing from the United Food and Commercial Workers, its actual strategy is to organize workers to press for better pay and working conditions without formal unionization.
OUR Walmart has over 14,000 supporters on Facebook alone – a number sure to increase before Black Friday – with supporters for the cause also scattered among a number of smaller pages, with the so-called “OFFICIAL” page and “Walmart Black Friday strike working group” among the largest.
When some workers demand “better” working conditions, they also mean “safer.” Retail stores can be dangerous places on Black Fridays; in 2008, a Walmart worker in Long Island was trampled to death by a Black Friday mob. There were no Black Friday fatalities last year, but Walmarts throughout the country saw police arresting frenzied people who attacked employees or fellow shoppers.
So it’s no surprise that over 200 people thus far have either “liked” or shared OUR Walmart’s Oct. 30 Facebook post: “‘Mary Pat from WI, ‘How many associates are actually fearing their safety may be jeopardized during the Black Friday Event? How many customers are also fearful of this?’’”
Commenter Brittany Clark, presumably a Walmart employee, posted, “I'm extremely worried. I'm 30 weeks pregnant and asked them to give me the day off so that I wouldn't get harassed or trampled. All I received was a big fat no. Unbelievable.”
Not everyone who tweeted or blogged about the strike is siding with the workers. Shauna at the Penny Pinchers blog explained “Why a Wal-Mart Employee Strike Won’t Hurt My Black Friday Shopping”; Shauna said she shops online anyway, but fears that her 18-year-old daughter scheduled to work at Walmart on Black Friday will face an extra workload if her colleagues are no-shows.
And, of course, there are plenty of Walmart supporters who likely haven’t even heard about the strike, and are still “Hitting Walmart for Black Friday!! I Love Me Some Walmart!!!”
Photo via NeonTommy/Flickr