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Walmart Walkouts Are Just the Start

A single strike on Black Friday won't dent the retailer's profits, but it could be the first of many.

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This article originally appeared on  The American Prospect.

In the last few months, an unprecedented wave of labor unrest has shaken the retail giant Walmart and its far-reaching supply chain. While the number of employees taking part in walkouts has been limited to the low hundreds, workers and labor activists are mounting pressure and threatening to stage a company-wide strike on Black Friday -- the busiest shopping day of the year.

The Black Friday walkout is being organized by the Organization United for Respect at Walmart (OUR Walmart), a group of Walmart employees formed last year that works closely with the United Food and Commercial Workers union, or UFCW. OUR Walmart, which organized walkouts in October, is pushing for better working conditions, benefits, and an end to alleged retaliation by management.

The Black Friday strike would add yet another chapter to a wave of worker protests across Walmart’s supply chain. It all began in June when  a group of immigrant guest workers at a Walmart seafood supplier in Louisiana walked off their jobs. In September, workers at company warehouses in  California and Illinois went on strike. The workers in Illinois eventually won back pay. California workers weren’t so lucky—they started striking again last Wednesday. Shortly after those warehouse strikes began, retail workers backed by OUR Walmart started walking out of stores in 12 states.

Walmart is painting the striking employees as a minority that’s unrepresentative of its workforce. “The opinions expressed by this group don’t represent the views of the vast majority of the more than 1.3 million Walmart associates in the U.S,” says Walmart spokesperson Dan Fogleman. “Throughout all of these union-staged events, all of our stores were staffed up and open for business as usual. Likewise, we will be taking care of our customers on Black Friday and are looking forward to helping shoppers get a great start to the holiday shopping season with some great merchandise and our unbeatable prices.”

Part of why the recent actions are so remarkable is that Walmart is one of the most notoriously anti-union companies in thea country. Based in right-to-work Arkansas, the retailer has maintained an almost entirely union-free workforce for most of its existence, even once  resorting to shutting down a store in Quebec shortly after a successful union drive there. The company has never before dealt with coordinated labor protest on this scale. “In the past, Walmart would fire people, would threaten people … and that would be enough to stop people in their tracks,” said Dan Schlademan, director of Making Change at Walmart, another organization backed by the UFCW which works closely with OUR Walmart. “The difference now is workers are using Walmart’s own tactics to challenge the company and not backing down. Really, for the first time in Walmart’s history, the tools that are used to keep people silent and under control are now being used against them. That’s significant.”

Indeed, OUR Walmart has framed its strikes and the upcoming Black Friday action as an “unfair labor practice strike”—that is, as a response to the company’s alleged retaliation against employees. Workers have already filed a handful of unfair labor practice charges with the National Labor Relations Board—the independent federal agency that governs labor relations in the private sector. While Walmart employees aren’t unionized, they’re still covered under the National Labor Relations Act, which protects the right of nonunion workers to go on an unfair labor practice strike without being permanently replaced.

Venanzi Luna, a deli manager at the Walmart in Pico Rivera, California, said she’s witnessed management retaliate against her co-workers. At Luna’s store, where she and some of her co-workers went on strike in October, workers have filed two unfair labor practice charges. “If an associate speaks out, they retaliate by taking their hours, not giving them full-time hours, they write them up, they can ‘coach’ them,’” Luna says. “It’s the little things that that they do, whatever they can file, anything for them to retaliate against associates that are either part of OUR Walmart or speak out against [Walmart]. They’ve gotten to the point where they’ve fired associates because of it.”

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