Kathleen Miles is the executive editor of Noema Magazine. She can be reached on Twitter at @mileskathleen.
Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving regarded as one of the biggest shopping days of the year, may be dramatically different this year.
Organizers are planning a nationwide strike against Walmart, the largest retailer in the world, and are banking on a new strategy: online organizing.
Labor organizers are working with social action nonprofit Engage Network as well as corporate watchdog nonprofit Corporate Action Network to pull off what they are calling a “viral” — meaning national and spreading online — strike.
Walmart workers interested in joining the day of action are directed to this website, either to find a store near them with an organized strike or to “adopt an event” at a store near them.
Organizers cannot cover the roughly 4,000 Walmarts across the country, but enabling self-appointed leaders online has widened and decentralized the campaign, Brian Young, cofounder of the Corporate Action Network, said on a conference call coordinated by the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) union Thursday.
Supporters can also sponsor a striking worker, who may be losing wages in order to strike, by donating grocery gift cards. The campaign has raised more than $13,500 worth of donations toward grocery gift cards since Oct. 15 — a figure that doesn’t include significant funds raised through mailed-in checks, Jamie Way, of the UFCW, told HuffPost.
“This online mobilization, in addition to traditional on-the-ground organizing, has allowed the campaign to reach into the rural corners of the country that might have otherwise been overlooked,” Marianne Manilov, cofounder of the Engage Network, said.
She pointed to a group of renegade workers in Oklahoma who mobilized in October. “A completely unorganized set of workers in Oklahoma spontaneously went out on strike and held their own type of action without any organizer or … connection with the broader organization,” she said. “This is what organizing looks like in the age of Occupy.”
The outreach leading up to Black Friday follows a series of unprecedented actions taken by Walmart workers against their employer and working conditions. In October, for the first time in the company’s 50-year history, more than 70 workers at multiple Los Angeles-area Walmart stores walked off the job, even though their jobs are not protected by an official union. The strike had a ripple effect, causing strikes in 12 other cities, in large part through online organizing.
The success of these strikes, as well as one over the summer touted as the largest ever protest against the company, and a six-day pilgrimmage of warehouse workers in September, would not have been possible without Facebook, Twitter and other web sites, Young said.
“Making Change at Walmart,” which organized the demonstrations and is a campaign affiliated with the UFCW union, has over 25,000 supporters on Facebook.
Although it does not officially represent Walmart workers, OUR Walmart, organized by the Making Change campaign, acts like a union to fight for the rights of Walmart workers. OUR Walmart, which was founded last year with 100 members, now has over 14,000 supporters on Facebook.
Corey Parker, a Walmart worker from Mississippi, said that he became active with OUR Walmart after finding out about it through a HuffPost article on Facebook. Now, he has mobilized workers at his store to strike on Black Friday because, he said, he realized that “not being able to make a living was not just an issue at my store.”
Adding fuel to movement, Walmart announced Thursday that it will kick off its Black Friday sale at 8 p.m. on Thanksgiving, its earliest start ever.
“Lots and lots of Walmart workers are going to be forced to not have Thanksgiving because they’re going to be preparing all day for the busiest shopping day of the year,” Dan Schlademan, director of Making Change at Walmart, said. “This essentially cancels Thanksgiving for hundreds of thousands of workers.”
“It’s not like Walmart is financially hurting. It’s not like they’re not making unbelievable sums of money. The price of this is really decimating an important family day in our country.”
But Walmart spokesman Steven Restivo said of the sale, “Last year, our highest customer traffic was during the 10 p.m. hour and, according to the National Retail Federation, Thanksgiving night shopping has surged over the past three years.”
“Most of our stores are open 24 hours and, historically, much of our Black Friday preparations have been done on Thanksgiving, which is not unusual in the retail industry,” he said, adding that the strikes planned for Black Friday, will not “have any impact on our business.”
Regarding the action over the last few months, Restivo said, “While the opinions expressed by this group don’t represent the views of the vast majority of more than 1.3 million Walmart associates in the U.S., when our associates bring forward concerns, we listen.”
In September, dozens of Walmart-contracted warehouse workers in Southern California’s Inland Empire walked off the job and went on a six-day, 50-mile pilgrimage to protest working conditions and retaliation for speaking up.
More than a month later, the warehouse company NFI responded to some of the strikers’ working condition requests. “Just in the last week, we’ve seen the warehouse operators scrambling to replace broken and unsafe equipment, they’ve rented fans to increase ventilation, and they’ve added more water coolers,” Elizabeth Brennan, communications director for Warehouse Workers United, said.
However, the strikers who returned to work have continued to face retaliation, many times getting their hours cut from 35 down to eight, she said. Some of these warehouse workers will join striking Walmart workers on Black Friday, Brennan said.
Excluding the retaliation, organizers hope to see that type of positive response after Black Friday. And with an online system open to anyone who wants to start a strike in his or her local Walmart, Manilov hopes both the demonstration and response will be broad-reaching.
“This is one of the first labor campaigns to really fully embrace the potential of online-to-offline labor organizing,” she said. “As this captures fire, its potential is limitless.”