In a time of labor uncertainty, the ongoing groundswell of strikes, protests, and labor actions centered on Walmart provide hope for both workers and labor organizations.
We live in an era defined by the markedly fast decline of organizational power. This is due to a variety of social, economic, and political reasons. But the most common iconography is the rise of powerful service-based corporations with a highly globalized division of labor and the decline of organizations which can properly manipulate the market to accommodate the needs of the workforce.
But there is hope, for which we can cite the requisite and primary conditions against which the workers are organizing: wages, scheduling, benefits, and treatment by management. These are all real areas where the workers can have material impact through effective organizing. But there is a deeper aspect to the strikes which calls for a certain optimism.
In recent history, labor unions have tended to focus on union elections and contract negotiations as legally mandated by the National Labor Relations Act. This process is often exhausting and slow, and as Josh Eidelson wrote last May, workers generally end up looking more like they’re “shackled to labor law” by the end of the process.
What is so promising about the Walmart strikes is that it represents a definitive departure with traditional forms of labor organizing. In fact, there are real signs that even Walmart is properly intimidated; their recent Unfair Labor Practice (ULP) filing against the UFCW fails to even accurately engage and analyse the ongoing labor campaign . The company incorrectly assumes that the workers are striking for the purpose of petitioning and being represented by a union, when in reality, the workers have not made a request for representation.
This is astounding! It’s especially astounding when you take into account the modern application of labor law to organizing. Without a union contract, the workers can only leverage raw organizing onto the company. This is much higher stakes. If they can’t mobilize the numbers or affect the production of Walmart, they won’t have a contract to fall back on and the work will be wasted. But, if they are successful, they will win concessions from the company all the while taking full protection under Article 7 of the Wagner Act while having none of the restrictions that come along with the negotiating and representational process of union contracts.
If the Walmart organizing campaigns are successful, we can predict a few outcomes. First and foremost, if the ULP filing by Walmart is ruled against by the NRLA, there will be no further legal recourse for companies to fall back on in order to prevent or restrict this style of organizing. Additionally, if the actions of the Walmart workers are successful in receiving concessions from the company and subsequently protected by Federal law, then we can expect to see this type of organizing increasingly more in industry wide organizing campaigns. This could be a big game changer, as labor unions have had a difficult time organizing in the service and retail industries which have recently experienced huge growth.
So when it really comes down to it, this is huge. The Walmart strikes have a chance of redefining the way we approach organizing on a massive level in industries that have been largely untouched. This could mean a lot of growth for labor in the coming years. Maybe, maybe not. What is certain, however, is that the next question to ask will be: how do we turn this into infrastructure and institutions, and begin building resources. If the strikes are successful, do we begin certifying unions? If not, what else?