Uncharted Territory

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There were nationally-coordinated actions at Walmart stores across the country for Black Friday.

Over the last several months, there have been walk-outs at Walmart stores in nine states. Walmart is the biggest retailer in the world, and has been criticized for years for rampant gender discrimination, poverty wages, crushing small businesses, and so on. This year may be when everything changed, because it’s the first time any significant number of Walmart workers took action on their own behalf. (Yes, they’re workers. Calling them “associates” doesn’t make the exploitation any sweeter.)

I’ve only been to two Walmart stores, and they felt like what I imagine purgatory to be like. I find Walmart parking lots terrifying because the people in them are clearly not afraid to die. When I brought my kids to the rally on Friday at the San Leandro, California store, it was with an exuberant rally in front with the sparkling accompaniment of the Brass Liberation Orchestra.

Here’s a map of the known Black Friday protests across the country.

The indispensable Allison Kilkenny of The Nation came loaded with videos and pictures from the contingent of Occupy Wall Street activists to a Walmart store in New Jersey.

Here are pictures from Friday’s actions across the country.

There’s been an outpouring of art, as artists have created tons of pieces to educate, agitate, and inspire in solidarity with the Walmart workers.

Here are the Walmart workers explaining in their own words why they struck on Friday.

New York Times columnist Bob Herbert wrote about how Walmart drags down wages for everyone, and how giving WalMart workers a raise would stimulate the whole economy.

The heirs to the Walton family are worth more than the bottom 40% of Americans combined, obviously because they work harder and are smarter than the bottom 40% combined. In capitalism, that’s the only plausible explanation, right?

Colorlines explains the importance and context of the campaign by OURWalMart:

And Huffington Post reports on the preparations by workers and the company for the Black Friday actions ahead of time.

If you need to hear it from the “Lamestream Media” (as a comic, I miss Sarah Palin), CNN has your story.

A few notes from my vantage as a former union organizer:

The right to organize is defined legally as the right to “engage in concerted activity for mutual aid and benefit,” which means that you don’t need a union to do it. Anyone can do it. The fascinating aspect of the OURWalmart campaign is that workers are organizing to expose publicly their working conditions without any formal demand for legal union certification. By doing so, they’re creating legal protections for their rights to organize. On the other hand, because Obama hasn’t lifted a finger to push the Employee Free Choice Act to make it easier to unionize that he supported as a Senator and a candidate, trying to have an actual union vote would be a disaster for the workers.

Walmart’s talking points will be that none of their employees participated in the actions, it was all outside union front-groups, and business was great. It’s too early to tell how true that is, but just know that it’s always the talking point for the boss during every picket line ever. It’s some kind of indicator that they were worried that there were lots of reports of Walmart threatening workers and holding meeting reminding them of that they should live in fear.

Finally, it’s incredibly exciting to see the outpouring of community support for the Walmart workers. It harnesses the energy of Occupy Wall Street and uses the communication tools, with a very clear target and set of demands. However, no amount of community solidarity can substitute for the workers themselves leading their own fight. If there isn’t a core of worker-leaders among current WalMart employees in this thing, it will die on the vine. Some of the smartest organizers of my generation are hard at work on that, so I’m optimistic. But we’re in uncharted territory as to what this can or should look like, which makes me happy. I love uncharted territory in social movements.

For more info, here’s the website for Making Change at Walmart.


Nato Green is a San Francisco comedian who will be hosting Iron Comic for Sketchfest on February 9 at Cobb's Comedy Club, and is in residency every Wednesday with The Business at the Dark Room Theatre. More from this author →