Sunday, October 28, 2012

Labour Organizing As Warfare

Matt Stoller tweeted a link to this excellent piece on recent changes to the US labour organizing strategic landscape.  In one of the most remarkably under-reported stories I've ever seen, Walmart workers across 12 cities in 9 states staged a series of wild-cat strikes in early October and unlike almost every other attempt by workers to organize against Walmart, came out ahead.  In the past at Open Left, I noted a couple Canadian Walmart stores that unionized, and Walmart's answer invarably was to suddenly declare the store "unprofitable" and close it down (only to open a new store shortly after in the same geographic area). 

At the current moment, the total impact of these actions has been small, involving a relative handful of workers, which perhaps justifies why this isn't getting more media attention, but the fact that such small labour actions suceeded should make anyone interested in labour power pay attention, because it looks like some labour groups have figured out a new way to fight back in the globalization era.  From the first link:
The Elwood facility, owned by the company RoadLink, processes a staggering 70 percent of Walmart’s domestic goods, and the strike there has radically altered the balance of power in the workplace. Mike Compton, a former striker who is now back at work in the warehouse told me about the new climate of the warehouse. “Managers are being overly nice,” he said.
This is where the post title comes from.  This is an application of war doctrine to the labour rights question.  There's a famous quote (attributed to several famous military leaders) that goes "amateurs study strategy, professionals study logistics."  Sun Tzu's line about armies marching on their stomachs also comes to mind.  Walmart has spent decades developing a lean, mean, "just-in-time" supply chain which means they deliberately keep as little stock in each store and warehouse as possible.  This makes them highly vulnerable to supply chain disruptions.  That the US rail system has particular nodes where high volumes of goods go through only makes Walmart more vulnerable to well organized pinpoint labour strikes (and the word strike here can be understood both as a labour disruption, and a military tactical attack).

This is turning the system of neoliberal globalization against itself.  Rather than relying on trying to reach critical mass of front line clerks sufficient to make Walmart unable to get by on scabs and store closures, find the vulnerable points in the system and organize just enough workers there to have an impact.

This logic can be extended to other organizations too.  Walmart's supply chain model has been highly influential on other retailers and even other industries.  I suspect the more globalized a company is, the more vulnerable they are to this. 

In another strain of finding a vulnerable point to strike, there is talk of a "Black Friday" strike.  This would hit Walmart on the biggest shopping day of the year (so named, I hear, because it is the day that many retailers actually become net profitable for the year, going from "red" ink to "black" in their books).  This strikes me as more likely to leave room for Walmart to simply fire any front line workers who walk off, but perhaps they'll settle very quickly rather than lose out on the single biggest shopping day, even if at only a handful of stores.  It's got a shot because a disruption to Black Friday profits has the possibility of hitting the Q4 results measurably.  It also will generate a lot of media attention in a way that some workers striking in a warehouse does not.  The media would love to air footage of people lined up for gate-crasher deals at some Walmart store and the store not opening because the workers had struck.  If Walmart is foolish enough to have the managers try and open the store themselves, we'll likely get footage of chaos, and if anyone is hurt (which already happens almost every year), all the more blowback against Walmart.

It might not work, but it has been several decades of slow decline for organized labour and it's encouraging to finally see some tactics employed that don't rely on past tactics which have now been rendered next-to-impossible via the legally slanted playing field. 

But do read this piece from up top.

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