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Black Friday Protests Against Wal-Mart Will Test A New Kind of Networked Organizing For Labor

BY Sarah Lai Stirland | Wednesday, November 21 2012

Labor organizers are trying to encourage widespread protests against Walmart by providing workers and the public with new tools

Wal-Mart workers with the help of the labor movement are planning 1,000 protest events at stores in 43 states on Friday as part of a new strategy to advocate for better hours, wages, and working conditions at the nation's largest employer. Using decentralized, Internet-organized events, these workers hope to outpace the anti-organizing tactics of a company that has gone so far as to shut down a department that moved to unionize and even closed an entire store in Canada when employees there voted to join a union.

Wal-Mart filed a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board last Thursday to try to stop the protests. The company argues that the protests violate a law that prohibits picketing for more than 30 days when a union is seeking recognition, according to The New York Times, which reports that the board is going to act quickly on the complaint.

But that's just the thing: Not all the people involved are even workers, and the protests are about working conditions, not necessarily about unionizing. The main union involved, the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union, says it is cooperating in a joint effort with independent workers and their allies, like OUR Walmart, which they say is independent of labor. Wal-Mart did not respond to requests for comment for this article.

And the UFCW issued a press release Tuesday afternoon saying that OUR Walmart, one of the groups organizing the protests, had filed its own complaint with the NLRB charging that Wal-Mart was trying to illegally prevent workers from striking.

UFCW and OUR Walmart are using Facebook groups and web tools to replace the dues, bosses, lawyers and NLRB back-and-forth that traditional unions are supposed to use to achieve the same ends. The hope, they say, is that they can use tools of collective action without a formal organization that might serve more as a target for Wal-Mart than as a shield against unfair labor practices or a tool to force Wal-Mart to a bargaining table. Call it an ununion, an online effort that began on Facebook and reaches a climax on Friday may be the first test of new tactics in the long-running battle between organized labor and big corporations.

For the past year, a group of about 100 workers at Wal-Mart have collaborated with the UFCW to build a national network that can organize protests and take other
actions that might pressure the company into improving conditions.

Organizers say that because there is no one institution at the center of the protests, this should make them more difficult to stop.

"It's something that's totally new on this scale," Sparks said in an interview. "I don't think it would be happening if it weren't for Facebook, and for social networks. These networks of workers would not have been able to find the OUR Walmart page, and see that they're not alone, and being able to start talking to other associates and see that they're having the same issues in different stores, and the same concerns."

Janet Sparks, 52, told techPresident she used to own a video-rental store in Alabama until Wal-Mart's own video operation put her out of business. She became a stay-at-home mom, then worked at a bank, and is now a customer service manager at a Wal-Mart in Baker, Louisiana.

Because Wal-Mart has her on an unpredictable work schedule, she said, she's been unable to find a second job. She found OUR Walmart and started getting involved after she spent an hour every day after work looking for groups to get involved in to improve her working conditions, which she said started deteriorating several years ago.

"I've invested seven years in Wal-Mart, and I want a return on my investment," she said. "So if I just go someplace else, and walk away from the fight of standing up for changes for workers, I would not have accomplished something."

One of the other spokes in the network supporting her is a new labor-backed group in Washington D.C. called the Corporate Action Network. A new eight-person organization based in Washington, D.C., CAN is providing the Wal-Mart workers, and anyone else who wants to get involved, with online tools to plan events, create petitions, and transfer campaign materials over the Internet.

"It's for anyone who wants to join and support the workers," said Brian Young, CAN's digital technology director. "There are prayer vigils that are being organized. There are other groups involved, like Jobs for Justice, and groups like that. There are other people who are just hearing about it, who always thought that Wal-Mart workers are being mistreated, and want to do something about it."

There are events planned elsewhere all over the country, some created by UFCW organizers, others by outsiders who just don't like how Wal-Mart operates.

"They compete on a level that other companies can't compete on, and I find that abysmal," says Victor Del Prete, a 45-year-old small business owner in Melbourne, Fla. "They go to China to make products with workers who work for $5 a day, and then they bring these products over here, and these people have to work on Thanksgiving Day. It used to be about giving, but now it's about taking and giving to Wall Street executives who don't even have to work that hard for their money."

Del Prete, CEO of Brevard Appliance Repair and an education software company called Edutuit, says he found out about the planned protests through Facebook. He established his CAN event page on Tuesday and has so far recruited four people to join him on Friday.

"It's a new model, and it's really incredible that UFCW is innovating in this way," said Marianne Manilov, co-founder and co-director of the Engage Network. Manilov is helping connect people with events in their area. For example, as people in Kentucky get in touch with OUR Walmart, she refers them to two Wal-Mart workers in Kentucky, one still at the company and one who quit, who are seeking to grow a group of strikers.

The problem facing Wal-Mart workers who want to take action to improve their working conditions is that the 4,000 Wal-Mart stores are so widely distributed. Some of them are in remote rural areas. There is no way for any one organization to send an organizer to every store. Instead, the groups involved in OUR Walmart are offering online tools for any Wal-Mart worker who wants to start a local initiative, and encouraging them to use Facebook to grow the network of workers campaigning for better conditions.

"I think the innovation here is they created a situation where anyone in any Wal-Mart can organize on anything that they want, and [the idea is] we'll support them," Manilov said. "Workers at Wal-Mart were able to organize on what was important to them. I call that leader-generated organizing, which is different from one person leading a campaign, and saying: We're going to organize Wal-Mart in L.A."

One example that Manilov points to is efforts by workers and their allies to raise money online to support themselves as they go on strike. An OURWalmart Wepay page shows
that they've raised $63,511 as of Wednesday afternoon. The idea is that the workers will be eligible for a $50 grocery card when they go on strike to make up for their lost pay.

OURWalmart has placed a list of demands on its site, including more reasonably priced health care plans, more predictable scheduling of work hours, which are set by a computer algorithm, and that Wal-Mart stop retaliating against workers for joining the initiative. They're also demanding wages high enough that they do not require government assistance.

The NLRB might rule on the Friday protests before they happen, but then again, it might not. Regardless, the number of different groups involved in the protest, and the way they originate from workers in each individual store rather than from union organizers, makes it unlikely an unfavorable decision will stop protesters who plan on showing up.

"This is a starfish strategy," Manilov said. "It's a thousand groups going out and doing things all at once, rising."