Wal-Mart Faces a New Round of Historic Strikes… But Why Now?

Last month, when strikers from Southern California arrived in Bentonville, Arkansas to protest Wal-Mart’s labor practices with reggae beats, pots and pans, and a Latin American-inflected protest culture, it became clear to onlookers that America’s superstore was no longer the small family business that Sam Walton had founded and grown in the cradle of the anti-labor culture of Southern evangelicaldom. But it’s also become clear that Wal-Mart’s own ambitions to become a global empire—expanding beyond southern suburbs to new regions, and continuing to erode protections for its workers—have brought the “family values” behemoth into confrontation with another kind of religious and labor rights tradition.

Wal-Mart has long been the Holy Grail for labor organizers. The nation’s largest retailer, it is notorious for its low wages, lack of benefits, abusive labor practices, and for leaving its workers dependent on public assistance while making the Walton family rich beyond imagination. And it has been nearly impossible to organize.

Until now.

Today, again, Wal-Mart workers are on the picket lines outside warehouses in Mira Loma, California, and more actions are expected elsewhere as the workers build their campaign. In October, 28 Wal-Marts saw retail workers walk off the job in protest, in stores from California to Maryland, Texas to Washington. Warehouse workers at Wal-Mart distribution centers outside Chicago and in Los Angeles have also gone out on strike—and won. The full reinstatement and back pay granted to the workers (averaging $900 for each) was unprecedented, leading one of the strikers to comment, “I think there’s been a hit in Wal-Mart’s armor.” 

The retail employees are part of the Organization United for Respect at Wal-Mart (or OUR Wal-Mart), an organization backed by the United Food and Commercial Workers union. The group has skipped traditional labor organizing in favor of broad-based campaigns for fair treatment that have drawn on the support of surrounding communities, and particularly of faith leaders. Traditional union elections have been nearly impossible to win at Wal-Mart—the company even closed a Canadian store that voted for one—but even without an official union, workers taking collective action on the job are protected by labor law.

On the picket line and in Bentonville, in conference calls and statements to the media, the workers have charged that the company retaliates against workers who speak up about their conditions by cutting their hours or changing their schedules. They’ve demanded a halt to such actions by November 23, “Black Friday,” the biggest shopping day of the year. If the company doesn’t move to meet their demands by then, the workers and their allies say there will be more strikes, sit-ins, rallies, and other actions across the country. 

Wal-Mart’s reputation as a Christian company has been one of the reasons the retail giant has been notoriously hard to organize. The company embedded itself in a particular brand of free-enterprise-friendly Southern evangelical Christianity that, as historian Bethany Moreton pointed out in her book To Serve God and Wal-Mart, helped win the loyalty of its massive corps of service workers.

But the combination of longtime workers feeling betrayed by the company, newer workers who never felt that loyalty to begin with, and the fact that for so many years the company paid lip service to Christian values in lieu of fair wages, is leaving Wal-Mart vulnerable to labor uprisings.

Low Wages as Family Values

When Wal-Mart began, deep in rural Arkansas, its first workforce was made up largely of women who’d never worked for wages before. Those women brought with them a particular ethic, Moreton explained, of humble service to their community that had deep roots in evangelical Christianity.

It was one of the first companies to really understand—and build its business strategy around—the specific skills of women workers, who adapted well to the service industry and could be paid little. The same sorts of “people skills” that women had long been expected to exemplify through unpaid domestic work were being recognized as valuable by Wal-Mart, which offered female employees the homey promise that they were important members of Wal-Mart’s corporate “family.” Trading on this emotional language, the company could offer women low wages and still retain their loyalty, as Moreton wrote, by framing their jobs as an extension of the evangelical “family values” that they held dear. As a service employer, Moreton told RD, Wal-Mart learned that paying public obeisance to the value of “service”—a concept transplanted neatly from Christian good works to working hard in the checkout line—made good business sense. 

“Everyone wants to feel that what’s important to them can be serviced in their labor,” Moreton said. Wal-Mart, she noted, “managed very cannily” to allow workers to feel that their values were being respected, so that they could get away without providing for other needs—like a living wage.  

Low wages and few benefits, then, were an integral part of the company’s business model from the beginning. But a show of respect for the workers was part of the deal, part of what made them loyal—and hard to organize into traditional unions.

But then even this uneasy balance began to unravel for some.

Janet Sparks, a member of OUR Wal-Mart from Baker, Louisiana, started working at Wal-Mart in 2005. She told RD, “To me, Mr. and Mrs. Walton, they had their Christian beliefs and I truly believed they had done great things for associates.” The company had worked with single mothers on their scheduling, Sparks explained, and made sure that the workers had enough hours to pay their bills. 

But in the seven years since, she’s felt a change within the company—something she attributes to the 2007 death of Helen Walton, the wife of founder Sam. At the Pennsylvania store where she worked at the time, the workers were switched from a set schedule to “optimized” scheduling, done by computer according to the previous year’s sales on that day. As a result employees saw their hours cut and their wages capped, which meant no more raises, ever, even for longtime employees. “It just seemed to change from associate-friendly and family-friendly to more corporate-friendly,” she explained. “They set goals up for us to meet that we can’t possibly meet, then people get written up for things they can’t possibly accomplish.”

In 2010, she was one of the associates invited to the Wal-Mart shareholders’ meeting, where she attended presentations on the great things the company said it was doing, for women, or against hunger, while its workers weren’t making enough to pay their bills and were subjected to unpredictable scheduling. She was shocked when an executive wanted to close the meeting with his favorite verse of Scripture: Luke 12:48, “For unto whomsoever much is given, of him shall be much required.”  

For her, that moment of disconnect between the Christian values the executives professed to uphold and the reality she experienced at work was the last straw. “Right there I started praying for the Lord to expose these things in Wal-Mart.”

Not Supposed to Live in Poverty

Kim Bobo of Interfaith Worker Justice, who has worked for some 25 years as an advocate for workers within religious communities, told RD that one of the top questions she’s heard over her career is about Wal-Mart. “People understand that the way Wal-Mart treats its workers is really setting the tone for the nation,” she said. “It’s certainly setting the tone for retail workers.” 

The company’s ability to stave off unions, both through a deliberate and concerted campaign against labor, as well as its early history of cultivating worker loyalty, has had a ripple effect nationwide. Even workers in union supermarkets in Los Angeles, when Wal-Mart moves in, face the threat of lowered wages and benefits as their employers are forced to compete.

OUR Wal-Mart’s work has been different, succeeding in a way that traditional union organizing has failed, in part by replicating an older model of organizing that draws on the support of allies in the community, including faith leaders. They have thousands of members now in 44 states, including a trio in the heart of Wal-Mart Country: Texas, Louisiana, and Arkansas.

Perhaps more importantly, as Bobo noted, when Wal-Mart expanded outside of its rural Southern base—particularly into urban areas—it came into contact with different community values and religious cultures, with ministers like Pastor Edwin Jones of the Living Faith Baptist Church and International Ministries in Washington DC, who are already engaged with community organizing around economic justice issues. Jones’ community, which has the second-highest unemployment rate in the DC area, has been fighting a Wal-Mart in their neighborhood, pushing for a community benefit agreement with the retailer that would guarantee jobs for local residents who desperately need them. As a faith leader in an African-American congregation with a social gospel history, Jones was deeply involved in that struggle, and it was through that work in DC—a long way, both literally and metaphorically, from Bentonville—that he was connected with OUR Wal-Mart and their campaign for Wal-Mart workers. For him it was an easy decision to get involved and to travel the country, organizing with the workers.

Rural Southern churches have little structure for engaging with such fights even if individual pastors might be interested in doing so, Bobo added. But pastors like Jones, whose church has always been steeped in social and economic justice, represent a different strain of Christianity that Wal-Mart is having to contend with as it expands into the North and especially into urban areas, where low-wage workers aren’t just white women, but are increasingly immigrants and people of color. Catholic churches with ties to Latin American progressive traditions, African-American Protestant churches with roots in the Civil Rights movement and white Protestant churches in the social gospel tradition bring a very different standard for what it means to care for the community.

While he was working with OUR Wal-Mart in California, Jones met a young Latina woman, a Wal-Mart employee, who was pregnant. The company had given her no time off, had pressured her not to take sick days, and implied that maybe she should just quit her job if she wasn’t feeling well. One day, Jones said, her manager told her, “You didn’t come to this country just to have babies.” It stuck with him, he said, the dehumanization.

Protesting this kind of treatment of mothers and mothers-to-be, Moreton noted, epitomizes different kind of “family values”—not about gay marriage or abortion, but the value of taking care of one another. “There are a whole lot of ways to see family values as economic values as well,” she pointed out. The workers, too, see the value of solidarity, of supporting their colleagues, as a “family” value. “What people are saying publicly is we want recognition of the dignity of service work,” said Moreton. “I think that’s really powerful and potentially very legible to people whose primary framework for thinking about policy and economics starts with their faith.”

For Vanzell Johnson, an OUR Wal-Mart member from Lancaster, Texas (not far from original Wal-Mart country), faith was what made him speak out at work. “I don’t believe that we’re supposed to live in poverty, not the Father that I serve. But that’s how they got it set up,” he said. The kind of attention and respect that workers like Janet Sparks used to feel they got from the company, Johnson feels he gets instead from OUR Wal-Mart and from working together with his colleagues to make their workplace better.

The service ethic that Wal-Mart built its business around is now coming back to haunt it, as workers like Johnson and Sparks see organizing and fighting for better conditions as a more meaningful extension of the ideals of service. And the irony that Wal-Mart’s expansion outside its Bible Belt roots has resulted in the greatest threat to its stable, anti-union culture, has not been lost on critics. “If you want to expand into [other] places,” said Moreton, recalling the influx of protestors from Southern California to Wal-Mart’s Arkansas headquarters, “those are currents that are going to come all the way back to Bentonville.”