Walmartism and Its Discontents

Nick Ut/AP Images

Efforts to unionize Walmart have made little headway in the face of a problem endemic to the retail sector: high turnover. Discontented workers simpyl quit rather than invest in the hard work of fixing a company's problems. 

Working for Respect: Community and Conflict at Walmart
By Adam Reich and Peter Bearman
Columbia University Press

This article appears in the Fall 2018 issue of The American Prospect magazine. Subscribe here

Until the “gig economy” and artificial intelligence became their primary preoccupations, observers of the 21st-century workplace were obsessed with the 800-pound gorilla of global retail: Walmart. Infamous for its low wages—so low that many of its workers are eligible for public assistance—and for its intransigent resistance to unionization, this global corporate behemoth was also the target of multiple gender discrimination lawsuits over the years. Although many of its practices are similar to those of other large retailers, Walmart became the poster child for labor exploitation. It has made fewer headlines lately, but it remains the world’s largest private-sector employer, with more than four times as many workers as Amazon, and more than twice as many as Amazon within the United States.

No one has analyzed the experiences and aspirations of Walmart workers as thoughtfully as Adam Reich and Peter Bearman do in their captivating new book. They also explore the challenges of low-wage worker organizing, largely through the eyes of 20 students who spent the summer of 2014 assisting with the authors’ research and simultaneously working on the Organization United for Respect at Walmart (OUR Walmart) campaign. Inspired by Freedom Summer, launched exactly 50 years earlier, this program was called the Summer for Respect.

The book’s authors, sociology professors at Columbia University, note that most of their friends and colleagues have never been to a Walmart store, not only because of the firm’s shabby reputation as an employer, but also due to a more visceral “class-tinged disgust at the company’s low class.” Reflecting the ever-widening divide between the cultural elite and the bulk of the population, however, there is no such disdain for Walmart in the heartland. On the contrary, Reich and Bearman found, jobs at its stores are coveted by many non--college-educated workers, who line up by the thousands whenever there is word of new hiring. In the wake of decades of de-industrialization and de-unionization, the available alternatives are often far worse, especially in the rural and working-class suburban areas where the stores are concentrated. Many Walmart “associates” value the sense of community they find among co-workers and customers, some of whom are neighbors or even family members. Moreover, workers can often carve out spaces on the job where they have substantial autonomy and can exercise their creativity.

The Walmart labor force is also surprisingly diverse. Many of the women employed there (70 percent of the company’s U.S. payroll as of 2014) are happy to escape the isolation and tedium (and in some cases abuse) of domesticity. Retirees returning to the workforce are similarly appreciative of the sociability the jobs provide. Workers with criminal records, whose job options are extremely limited, are grateful for a second chance. Overall, Reich and Bearman conclude, “for many employees, relative to other jobs that they can realistically get, working at Walmart is not so bad.”

Walmart does have its share of disgruntled employees, of course. They include downwardly mobile workers who landed there after losing well-paid jobs in unionized settings and who are keenly aware of what they have lost, unlike new labor market entrants and retirees. And even the most enthusiastic Walmart employees may sour on the situation once they realize that their advancement opportunities are limited, and/or after experiencing arbitrary or abusive treatment from managers.

Managerial despotism, a central component of what Reich and Bearman dub “Walmartism” (as in “Fordism”), has structural roots in the sheer complexity of the labor process and the unpredictable nature of customer traffic and behavior. These factors make it imperative that supervisors have a great deal of discretion to shuttle workers from task to task, opening the door to rampant favoritism.  Workers also complain that they often receive conflicting instructions from managers at different levels.

Other features of Walmartism include pervasive in-store surveillance and automated just-in-time scheduling systems that assign hours to workers based on algorithms that predict fluctuations in customer demand. But Reich and Bearman report that these are minor concerns compared to the arbitrariness of supervisors, which provokes many more complaints among workers than even the low pay for which Walmart is notorious. Like their counterparts in many other settings, Walmart workers yearn above all to be treated with dignity and respect, as the book’s title signals. Because managers often abuse their power and behave like petty tyrants, they spark deep resentment. Black men who experience such mistreatment invoke “comparisons to prisons and slavery,” while for some women workers, Walmart “comes to feel like the abusive spouse they sought to escape.”

All this would seem to make the company fertile ground for organizing. So why have efforts to unionize Walmart made so little headway? One reason, Reich and Bearman note, is that the standard response among workers who become discontented is simply to quit: high turnover, endemic across the retail sector, “protects the company from people who might, in other circumstances, feel invested enough in problems at the company to try to fix them.” And the sheer size of Walmart—the problem of scale—is also a formidable challenge.

Like most employers today, Walmart has invested deeply in “union avoidance.” As Barbara Ehrenreich memorably documented in her 2001 book Nickel and Dimed, management systematically screens for union supporters in the hiring process, and new employees are required to watch anti-union videos during orientation. For decades, the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) did try to organize Walmart, but the few inroads that it managed to achieve were quickly squashed. When the union succeeded in winning recognition at a Walmart tire and lube facility in Quebec, the company unceremoniously closed it down; the same thing happened in Texas when a handful of meat department workers unionized.

UFCW eventually abandoned the idea of a conventional union drive at Walmart, and instead lent support to OUR Walmart, founded in 2010. The group is best known for its Black Friday actions at Walmart stores around the country, where workers and their allies mount public protests against the company’s labor practices, leading some customers to shun the stores and attracting extensive media attention. OUR Walmart partnered with Reich and Bearman in the Summer for Respect, providing the authors with extensive access to the campaign’s internal dynamics through the students.

OUR Walmart’s “alt-labor” organizing approach may have departed from the conventional union playbook, but the company responded as if it were a standard unionization campaign. At the Pico Rivera Walmart in Los Angeles, after more than one-third of the workers joined OUR Walmart, the company laid off the entire workforce and closed the store for six months in 2015 (supposedly to address plumbing problems); when it reopened, none of the core activists were re-hired.

OUR Walmart lost UFCW’s backing in 2015, morphing into a moderated online discussion group; a bit later, it promoted an app called “Work It” that workers could use to access information about their on-the-job rights from labor lawyers and other experts. This “virtual organizing” effort had just begun when Reich and Bearman finished their book, but they see it as a promising path, in part because of its potential to solve the daunting problem of scale. The online approach also capitalizes on workers’ existing social networks, which the authors consider vitally important.

Indeed, Reich and Bearman argue that social networks built on mutual trust are the key to successful labor organizing. Drawing on the students’ observations, they identify “organic work groups” in the stores—informal networks of workers that include leaders whom other group members respect and trust. This idea is by no means new, but Reich and Bearman explore it more systematically than previous commentators, documenting (and diagramming) networks in detail. Their analysis shows that OUR Walmart’s recruitment efforts were most successful when they leveraged these networks, building on workers’ “connection to and loyalty to one another.” Workers rarely signed up for OUR Walmart individually but rather, did so in clusters. Joining could be contagious if it tapped into pre-existing networks.

The authors also explore the networks that formed among the students who participated in the project and the OUR Walmart staffers who supervised them during the Summer for Respect. None of the five organizing sites that hosted the students was successful by conventional standards—the students hardly recruited anyone into OUR Walmart. But the sites did vary along another metric: At three of them, the organizing teams developed strong, trust-based networks among the students and their supervisors, while at the other two sites they failed to do so.

Reich and Bearman debriefed the students in lengthy interviews, and also conducted before-and-after brain scans, enabling them to compare the sites systematically. The brain scans distinguished between trust and friendship (the technical details on this part of the research are tucked into an appendix for interested readers), and ultimately what mattered was not students “liking” the supervisors, but instead trusting them. These networks of trust had enduring effects: The students in the organizing teams that succeeded in building trust were more likely to continue doing social justice work after the summer project ended; a few of them remained involved in labor organizing.

The punch line of this engaging book is that organizing succeeds when it leverages networks of trust, which can be transformed into tools to build workers’ power and win social change. Among organizers and workers alike, the authors show, trust is what matters for creating solidarity. Thus, rather than focusing on “bread and butter” issues, they argue, the labor movement should “return to the idea that the essence of workplace organization is positive solidarity, a sense of belonging.” Because this argument is embedded in a detailed case study of efforts to organize (on- and off-line) the world’s largest private employer, it merits close attention from anyone who cares about labor’s current dilemmas and future prospects.

Yet fostering solidarity is not by itself an adequate solution to the enduring problem of de-unionization, which can be traced back to the neoliberal turn of the 1970s, and a better approach to organizing is not sufficient to turn things around. I vividly recall the giddy optimism that infused the labor movement after 1995, when John Sweeney’s ascent to the AFL-CIO presidency sparked a new wave of organizing led by an extremely talented group of unionists. With an assist from the economic boom of the late Clinton years, this effort actually managed to halt the relentless erosion of union density for a few years. It relied on rank-and-file-intensive organizing tactics like home visits, worker committees, and the like—tactics that fostered the trust-building and attention to workers’ own concerns for respect that Reich and Bearman advocate.

But even the top-notch organizing of that period could not achieve the scale necessary to defeat the ever-more sophisticated anti-unionism of employers (Walmart was but one of many who mastered that art). Moreover, employers’ adamant hostility to unions was buttressed by an increasingly hostile legal and political infrastructure. In the 21st century, the long-term decline resumed. With the failure of a herculean effort to win private-sector labor law reform during the 2000s, and the more recent Supreme Court decision in Janus v. AFSCME, which dealt a body blow to public-sector unionism, finding a path forward is going to require something beyond more effective organizing, welcome as that would be.

Today, it’s almost as if the breakthroughs of the New Deal never happened: Union density has fallen to the same low level as a century ago, and employers seem to have all the cards. As they did in the early 1900s, many organizers are placing their bets on local struggles to raise the minimum wage and to win protective legislation (like paid sick days), bypassing employers entirely. The worker centers and other alt-labor efforts also harken back to settlement houses and other cross-class alliances from the Progressive Era. Unions can survive in such progressive localities as New York, Seattle, San Francisco, and Los Angeles, but it’s hard to see how they could rebound more widely without a fundamental political realignment and new federal legislation. Though public sentiment has turned decidedly more pro-union in recent years, it will require a radically more progressive federal government to remove the decades of accumulated constraints on union organizing.

Still, there’s much to be learned from Reich and Bearman’s study for anyone who cares about the 21st-century workplace, and about how workers could win more power should the political climate be transformed.

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