The morning after Thanksgiving, as many Americans were sleeping or shopping, Walmart workers were striking. In Hanover, Maryland, a handful of strikers were joined by hundreds of supporters for an 8:30 am rally in the cold. Smiling, uniformed, ten-foot-tall cardboard cutouts of employees were emblazoned with the workers’ grievances: poverty wages, miserly benefits, dignity denied.
The head of the labor group Jobs With Justice blasted Walmart for abusing workers and pushing public school privatization. Then the crowd marched, two-by-two and 400 strong, through a shopping-center parking lot. When they reached the outer edge of Walmart’s property, police were waiting to block them. “We’re just nervous,” said striker Barbara Elliot. “It’s new, what we’re doing, but we’re tired…We’re doing it for other generations, too.”
Labor strife at Walmart is nothing new. But in the retail giant’s half-century of existence, it’s never looked like this. On the heels of a series of failed organizing campaigns, unions and their allies are mounting the strongest-ever North American challenge to Walmart. The new campaign faces daunting odds and extreme versions of the hurdles facing US workers everywhere: employers on the warpath and labor laws tilted against employees. But with a new organizing strategy and a savvy focus on Walmart’s supply chain vulnerability, this attempt has come closer than any at forcing change from the dominant player in our economy—a necessary task if there’s ever to be a robust future for the US labor movement.