Labor Gets Militant

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Faced with widespread
union busting and a feckless NLRB, a more aggressive labor movement is brewing

The National Labor Relations Board has a long history of
dysfunction, but its job just got a lot harder. In January, a federal appeals
court ruled that Obama had illegally appointed three of the board’s members
while the Senate was in recess early last year. Now, recess appointments are a touchy
in Washington,
but Obama had good reason. Republicans in the Senate had threatened to block
any and all NLRB appointments
, leaving the president with few options.
(Oddly, there’s no law against deliberately obstructing a vital government

If the decision stands, the
board is toast
. With only one remaining member, the NLRB lacks a quorum,
and legally loses all decision-making power. The bedrock of labor law
enforcement would grind to a halt. What’s more, all decisions since the January
4 appointments last year could be nullified–that’s hundreds of rulings on
everything from workers using social media, to who handles union dues on a
day-to-day basis.

This is bad news for organized labor, but not as bad as you
might think. While few doubt the board’s importance in protecting things the
right to organize, the NLRB also has a long history of institutionalizing the
bureaucracy and hierarchy that have plagued American labor for decades. The
board was born during an era of historic labor militancy, and reforms that
established basic workplace protections also went hand in hand with bans on
more militant actions like sit-downs, sympathy strikes, and wildcats. In their
place, the board set up channels like union elections and regulated
negotiations. The new system was more predictable for everyone, but also more
top-down, less democratic, and arguably much less effective for labor.

So, alienated by the rigidity and hierarchy of the NLRB
system, many workers and organizers have begun learning to live without it,
preferring to engage in struggles on their own terms. Indeed, with or without a
functioning labor board, many of the movement’s brightest flashpoints are operating
well outside the system.

One of the clearest of those flashpoints was certainly last
year’s unprecedented organizing effort at Walmart, a grassroots campaign that
united unions, labor groups, and activists across the country. The push began
in September, when workers at a Walmart-controlled warehouse in Mira Loma, California, walked
off the job and began a “Walmarch” to Los
Angeles to demand safer working conditions. Earning
well below a living wage, the Mira Loma workers had suffered 120-degree heat,
inadequate ventilation, and broken equipment–conditions that lead more than 80 percent
to experience on-the-job injuries. They were also mostly part-time workers, and
often relied on a “buddy system” during slower workweeks.

The symbolism of the 50-mile march, inspired by the 1966
United Farm Workers march to Sacramento,
was striking. Like the UFW, the warehouse workers found themselves excluded
from the protection of the NLRB system–the UFW because the board explicitly
excludes agricultural workers, the warehouse workers because of Walmart’s
notorious (not to mention illegal) union-busting. But also like the UFW, where
the warehouse workers lacked legal support, they found an outpouring of
community reinforcement. During some of the march’s hottest days (with temps
climbing above 100 degrees), volunteers set up impromptu clinics to provide
health care to the mostly uninsured workers. A few days later, the warehouse
workers were joined by more than 100 California
farm workers as well as activists from Students
Against Sweatshops
, who marched alongside them in solidarity. By October 5,
the marchers returned to work with a guarantee of better conditions.

That extraordinary victory soon galvanized Walmart workers
in other states to more militant action. Within a couple of days of the Mira
Loma strike, workers at a Walmart warehouse in Elwood, Illinois,
presented a petition for safer conditions, consistent schedules, and an end to
forced overtime. When supervisors began firing those who had signed, workers
walked out. On October 1, hundreds of community activists joined the striking
workers, where riot
police arrived
and arrested 17 protesters for civil disobedience. But like the
workers in California,
the Elwood strikers quickly won victories on core demands. By October 15, increasingly
under the umbrella of the labor group OUR Walmart, actions had spread to a
dozen cities nationwide.

Such early success had a lot to do with strategy, writes
historian Staughton Lynd in December’s Industrial
. Although they relied on support from recognized unions like the
United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW), their grievances, demands, tactics, and
victories were entirely their own. At every step of the way, including the climactic
Black Friday actions
throughout the country, Walmart workers operated decidedly
outside the NLRB system of petition and arbitration. Instead of channeling time
and energy into the tedious process of requesting recognition and electing representatives
to negotiate, workers in Mira Loma and Elwood decided collectively to organize
and take action themselves. This direct action approach had a big impact.  

For one thing, it meant a much quicker process. Workers in Illinois and California
organized, went public, and won concrete victories within a matter of weeks–an
unheard of timeline for unions sticking with official channels. Eschewing
official recognition also meant sidestepping legal restrictions like no-strike
clauses and bans on civil disobedience, sympathy actions, and boycotts. In California, Illinois, and
across the country, much of the campaign would’ve been difficult under the NLRB
umbrella–from the “Walmarch” in California
to the civil disobedience in Elwood, not to mention the spontaneous way it all took

But most importantly, workers took the company by surprise. For
decades, Walmart has remained union-free by exposing and undermining union
campaigns in whatever way it could. A 2007 Human Rights Watch report found that
the company routinely
breaks US labor law
to snuff out labor actions, from spying on workers, to
banning discussions of unions on company property, to firing those who join.
The report added that because labor law in the US is so toothless, Walmart’s
illegal conduct usually results in little more than a “slap on the wrist.”  

And if workers can somehow make it over these barriers and
go public with their demands, retaliation can be swift. When organizing workers
at a Quebec Walmart went public in 2005, the company pulled
up roots and left
. When a handful of Walmart meat-cutters in Jacksonville voted to
join the UFCW in 2000, Walmart announced it was terminating
meat-cutting operations
in 700 stores. And like many big-box companies,
Walmart’s managers have long been
to put a stop to organizing efforts before they get off the ground.
One “Manager’s Toolbox” from 1997 urges supervisors to be “constantly
for efforts by a union to organize your associates.” It also gives instructions
on curbing unionization at every step of the process, from initial organizing
to petitions to elections and bargaining. The handbook even provides a “Union
Hotline” to alert upper management at the first sign of trouble. Bottom line: Walmart
knows the NLRB process very well, and how to subvert it.

Which is what made last fall so exciting. If workers in Mira
Loma had circulated a petition, signed cards, or went public with demands,
management would’ve been all over it. But there’s nothing in the “Manager’s
Toolbox” about a Walmarch. This is what gives unofficial actions their power:
instead of working through a process stacked against them, workers in Mira
Loma, Elwood, and across the country took up the fight on their own terms. In
so doing, Staughton Lynd argues, Walmart workers revived the tactics and
strategy of the labor movement’s zenith–the heady decades before the NLRB put a
lid on labor militancy in during the Depression.  

But as groundbreaking as these victories have been, they’ve
not been alone. Workers in Mina Loma and Elwood are part of a growing trend in
organized labor, one that relies more and more on decentralized, grassroots
action outside the NLRB system–what the American
‘s Josh Eidelson calls “alt-labor.” It’s a method
more radical unions like the Industrial Workers of the World have been pushing
for a long time, and lately, it’s been catching on. Especially in big cities
like New York,
workers in traditionally unorganized sectors have started to organize in a
different kind of way, and it’s led to more than a few concrete victories. From
broad-based movements like Coalition to
Immokalee Workers
to local restaurants like Hot and
, workers, particularly in food service, are winning critical
victories by taking a more militant and creative approach to demanding their

One of the most interesting approaches has been that of the Restaurant Opportunities
Center, a radical labor group based in
New York City. Like
OUR Walmart, the ROC is not a formal union and has no desire to become one. Their
strategy is a familiar one: direct action, unofficial strikes, and building
community support for campaigns. Not only that, with a cadre of lawyers and
worker advocates, the ROC helps educate workers on their rights, and when
necessary, provides legal support against the industry’s worst offenders. It’s
also adept at publicizing ongoing struggles. When food service workers win a
victory on, say, overtime violations, like they did at Mario Batali’s Del Posto
restaurant in Manhattan
in 2012, the ROC labels them a “high road” establishment. To date, the ROC has
won more than a dozen settlements against employers in New York City, along with millions of dollars
in workers’ back-pay.

The ROC has been active in the New York area for more than a decade, but
last year, they were joined by Fast Food Forward, a coalition of community
groups and unions including the SEIU. Unlike OUR Walmart and the ROC, Fast Food
Forward would eventually like to see their workers gain NLRB protection. But
instead of petitioning for recognition and then entering into negotiations with
employers, the group decided to take action in a more direct way. Less than a
week after Black Friday, the group organized a mass walkout in New York to demand
higher wages and greater labor protection. Workers pulled off the largest
strike in fast food history
before anyone even signed a union card.

Now, at first glance, the fast food strike doesn’t make a
lot of sense. Historically, big unions like the SEIU have not been fans of acting
outside the NRLB system. Even during the Depression, when wildcat actions and unofficial
strikes broke out in hundreds of cities nationwide and labor’s power was at its
height, large, established unions like the AFL and CIO urged moderation. The
difference today, argues Labor Notes
reporter Jenny Brown, is that the moderate strategy hasn’t
. If labor was at its militant height in the 1930s, today it’s at an
historic low. Faced with employers like Walmart that regularly violate the law to
impede organization, and an NLRB system that offers few prospects for victory, some
labor leaders have started to rethink and retool. The result has been a labor
movement that is more grassroots, more democratic, and more about action.

And it seems to be working. The last few years have seen a
wave of unprecedented achievements, often in industries long thought impossible
to organize. Numbers are still small, but activists and strikers in New York, Mira Loma, and
across the country have shown an energy and creativity that’s been hard to
ignore. Whether supported by established unions or not, this new militant wing
of organized labor has in many ways brought the movement back to its roots–rank
and file workers, organizing themselves democratically to fight for their
rights in direct and meaningful ways. If the campaigns spearheaded by OUR
Walmart and the ROC can continue this trajectory, it will have much more to do
with their unique vision and spirit than whatever ends up happening at the

Above image, of a Fast Food Forward/Occupy/RiseUpNY day of action in July 2012, by Katie
. Used with permission.

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