Dumping On Low-wage Workers is Lousy Direct Action

Sarah Jaffe Nov 27, 2012

The picket line outside the Secaucus, N.J., Walmart at 1 p.m. on Black Friday was joyous, festive and celebratory. The sousaphonist from the Rude Mechanical Orchestra had the slogan “Stand Up, Live Better” around the rim of his instrument, and banners declared solidarity with the striking Walmart workers and support for union rights. They called on the world’s largest private employer to pay its workers a living wage and stop retaliation — the firing or punishing of workers who speak out about their working conditions. The crowd sang “Solidarity Forever” in all its glory, shaking fists at the “greedy parasites.”

At least as far as I could tell, though, there were no striking workers at this particular Walmart.
Around the country, hundreds of Walmart workers walked off the job on Black Friday, the notorious shopping day after Thanksgiving. Organizers say that a hundred cities saw strikers and a thousand total protests were held, covering all but four states, in an escalation of an ongoing campaign led by the Organization United for Respect at Walmart (OUR Walmart). They drew support from Occupy organizers, unions, community members and elected officials; Congressman-elect Alan Grayson walked one striker out of a store in Florida, and Senator Sherrod Brown of Ohio told me, “I commend the workers who are exercising their rights to protest in order to improve conditions for other working Americans.”
Black Friday has grown into a symbol, to many, of the rot at the heart of American consumer capitalism, with people clawing and trampling one another in the rush to get the lowest price on holiday purchases. It has been the target of protest before, with the competing Buy Nothing Day dating back to the anti-corporate mobilizations of the 1990s. But this year at Walmart was different because the actions were called for by workers themselves, in the midst of a sustained campaign for better wages, hours and treatment.
Last year, as Susie Cagle reported, Occupy Oakland and other groups prepared a Black Friday action that was meant to disrupt the flow of commerce. Occupiers filled carts with merchandise, got into line, and then left the full carts there, moving on to another big box retailer.
While they also distributed flyers and prepared a banner drop opposing sweatshop labor, as Cagle noted, there’s a problem with this kind of action.
“During and after my coverage of the Occupy Oakland action in Emeryville, several people wrote to me on Twitter over the weekend expressing concern,” Cagle explained. “The majority were retail workers themselves, annoyed at the extra work of having to replace large amounts of stock on an already very busy day. A common refrain was, ‘We’re the 99% too.’”
Cagle posed the dilemma poignantly: “How do you attack consumerism without attacking consumers — or workers?”
This year, before Black Friday, some activists were advocating this same kind of prank. But tactics like this tend to fall not on the corporation’s bosses, safely ensconced in high-rise offices or gated campuses, but on the workers just trying to make ends meet. While many workers did strike on Black Friday, far more others went to work, unable or unwilling to risk the retaliation of their bosses — or perhaps just not yet reached by the organizers.
There’s a difference between a protest and a strike, of course — even a protest called for specifically by the workers at a company. The protests outside of Walmarts on Black Friday this year were called for as a gesture of deep solidarity for workers who might strike, to let them know that their communities had their backs.
By contrast, leaving full carts lying around in the store is largely an empty gesture not of solidarity, but of misdirected anger.
Nation reporter Allison Kilkenny and I went inside the store ahead of the activists. Walmart officials weren’t letting the reporters wearing formal press passes through the doors — they claimed this is their usual policy — but we walked in anyway and circulated throughout the store until we heard a “Mic check!” ring out. When the police and store security shut that speak-out down, another one started up, and the picketers played cat-and-mouse with security while offering their messages of support, repeating OUR Walmart’s call for an end to retaliation, better wages and reliable scheduling. One of the mic checks was in Spanish. When a group of mic-checkers accidentally knocked over a display while being hustled by police, they turned to clean it up rather than fleeing the scene. Little things like this matter.
Later, though, I was discussing the action with journalists Doug Henwood and Liza Featherstone, and they told me that they had been exhorted to go into the store and make purchases with small change. They refused, thankfully, making the point that doing so would not punish anyone — Walmart would still be making its money, even if that money was literally in pennies — except that it would leave the worker who would have to count and double-count those coins with a headache, an irate line of customers and an angry manager demanding to know why her line is moving so slowly. This is the ultimate empty gesture: You can’t even claim to be cutting into Walmart’s profit margins. Literally the only thing you’d be doing is making a worker’s day a little bit harder.
In her essay “Maid to Order,” Barbara Ehrenreich wrote, “To make a mess that another person will have to deal with — the dropped socks, the toothpaste sprayed on the bathroom mirror, the dirty dishes left from a late-night snack — is to exert domination in one of its more silent and intimate forms.” Ehrenreich was talking about domestic work, but her critique applies to the broader service sector as well — she worked both at Walmart and as a maid while writing her book Nickel & Dimed.
Historian Bethany Moreton explains in To Serve God and Wal-Mart that the company’s business model grew and was shaped by its largely female workforce in its home territory of the rural South. Those women went straight from dealing with dropped socks and dirty dishes at home to straightening displays and folding clothes left behind by customers at Walmart. That those workers were mostly women (and continue to be largely women) is a central reason for the continued lack of respect for the service work they do.
Leaving a mess behind you at a Walmart, even if you leave a flyer explaining why you did it, isn’t going to help those workers organize and fight for better conditions on the job, and it’s not going to stop the progress of global capital or even make a dent in that store’s profits for that day. It’s simply going to make more work for those same workers to deal with.
In Kearny, picketers stood at the entrance to the Walmart parking lot, holding signs that said “Honk to support Walmart workers.” There were plenty of honks, both from cars pulling into the lot and from passing trucks. Inside the store, activists (until being chased out by security) handed flyers to customers, most of whom cast at least a glance at them before continuing on their way. The mic checks at Kearny and Secaucus drew crowds and smartphone photos. Other onlookers shook their heads, bemused but unmoved, and kept on going. Yet there was another critical constituency that we needed to deal with when protesting Black Friday: the shoppers.
As I chatted with folks I knew at the picket line, a woman approached us and said that if we wanted to join the action inside the store, we should join a group over “that way.” As she walked off, she laughed, saying, “I’ve never been inside a Walmart in my life!”
In some ways this was just reflective of where we were; Secaucus is home to the largest Walmart close to Walmart-free New York City, so many of the people who came to join the picket were New Yorkers who didn’t have a local Walmart even if they wanted one. But it’s important to remember that many of the people who fill these stores in search of markdowns on big-screen TVs and Xboxes are making Walmart-like wages themselves. They couldn’t buy that TV otherwise. And as we show up to support the people working inside those stores in their fight against their bosses, we need to be conscious of whose life we want to make miserable — of, as the song goes, which side we are on.
In the past 30 years, as Doug Henwood has shown, strikes have fallen off considerably; that this year had both a major strike of Chicago’s teachers and the first-ever strikes in Walmart’s 50-year history is a good sign. But it means that these strikes are happening in the midst of a generation of young activists not used to seeing them, not used to taking a back seat to the workers themselves in planning actions, and used instead to an activist culture that has embraced pranks and Yes Men-style stunts. A progressive figure as well known as José Antonio Vargas was able to get away with crossing the picket line of Hyatt hotel workers outside of the Online News Association conference; he later told Colorlines' Rinku Sen that he hoped he could still work with unions in the future, but he felt his speech was important enough to warrant crossing that line.
Pranks and stunts are great for getting attention and reaching people who might otherwise not notice a more typical protest, but we need to be careful not to let them become an end in themselves. Such actions, practiced carelessly, can damage years of deep, fragile organizing to build worker power. A flash mob is great fun, but when it’s gone the workers still have to face their boss, who has control of the days and hours they get to work, what kind of work they do, and, ultimately, the paychecks that they will or will not bring home to their families. Make the workers regret your showing up, and the odds of them ever going out on strike themselves will dwindle.
“You don’t want to talk for them, because they have their own mouths,” Quadeer Porter, who had organized the action at the Walmart in Kearny, N.J., told me. “But you see civil disservice being done, you stand up.”
That’s the essence of solidarity action: Don’t assume that you know what is best for the people being impacted, because they can speak for themselves. You will do better if you are working together. It’s especially important in the case of OUR Walmart, which is based in a form of “minority unionism” that relies on individual workers or small groups striking at stores across the country rather than the whole workforce at one location going out. For one solitary worker considering striking by herself, a glance outside at a crowd singing “Solidarity Forever” might tip the balance one way, while a full cart in her checkout line that she has to clean up after might swing it the other.
Not every action can or should happen without angering anyone; mic checks and flyering and picketing Walmart surely made some shoppers rethink their priorities on Black Friday and hopefully caused headaches at corporate headquarters. Hard picket lines and blockades such as the one at the Keystone XL pipeline are deliberately designed to stop work whether the workers like it or not, and that doesn’t mean those kinds of actions are wrong. But such actions should also be taken with the awareness that workers need better options — a real social safety net that works in times of unemployment, or jobs that don’t require helping destroy the climate — and that right now, they often don’t have a choice.
Campaigns that aim to bring change to Walmart or other global megacorporations require more than momentary actions. Sustained worker organizing within Walmart and its supply chain provides the best opportunity to actually make a difference in the company’s practices. What outsiders do on days of action need to support that organizing, not compete with it.
As OUR Walmart continues to build its campaign — one that has already succeeded where many well-intentioned union campaigns and outsider protests have failed — there will be more calls for support. We need to be conscious of what that support means, and what it means to work in solidarity with those most impacted, rather than speaking for them.
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