A lot of the discussion following the Walmart strikes has centered on the reception of the strikes by the general public. Questions of efficacy and impact, it seems, have mostly surrounded how Walmart responded, how much media attention there was, and even how the strikes impacted sales.
This type of analysis incorrectly assumes that the role of striking is to gain public support and in general to win favor. Instead, what are important are not these sorts of ‘intangibles’ which can never be fully controlled by the workers or organizers, but instead the objective parameters for the organizing.
The relevant parameters, objective and quantifiable in this case, are the legal framework and the leverage of the workers. In the case of the Walmart strikes, the workers are within their total legal right in organizing. This point will undoubtedly be evidenced by the breaking down of Walmart’s Unfair Labor Practice filing before the National Labor Relations Board.
Leverage, however, the power of the workforce, is something that doesn’t remain constant. The workers begin with no leverage and then build that leverage out of strong organizational infrastructure. In this case, that infrastructure looks like workers being emboldened, talking to each other, and labor issues becoming a common topic of discussion for the typical Walmart worker.
The Walmart workers and organizers of the strikes have done everything right in this case. They have built a groundswell of organizing activity among the workforce; from here, it is easy to see where the strongest leverage points are located. Some Walmarts may have had lower turnout, whereas others may have had immense turn out (reports say up to 600 demonstrators at certain locations). This has tremendous benefits for organizing because now energy can be directed away from an exhaustive national organizing campaign to individual locations where there is great potential for strong employee-based leverage to be built. While this means that the front lines will become smaller, organizing resources will become increasingly concentrated, and more intense conflicts with Walmart management will take place, it also means that certain units of employees will become strong resource and organizing centers for not only other employees spread out throughout Walmart, but the entire industry.
In this way, the possibilities are endless. How and where the workers decide to consolidate power from certain groups, like whether organizing becomes more community based or strictly workplace based, will be determined. But it’s clear, and surely the organizers recognize this, that the organizing for Walmart workers is just starting. In this age of total information saturation, it’s easy to place too much importance on the media and visibility. There’s no doubt, however, that yesterday’s actions inaugurated a new era, as far as labor issues are concerned, in which there is something very new and very real happening, and just beginning.