Monday, July 2, 2012

Is keeping Wal-Mart out the right approach?

Wal-Mart protest in LA
Thousands of people marched in downtown Los Angeles against a proposed Wal-Mart store in the city's Chinatown district. Tom Morello, the IWW member and Rage Against the Machine guitarist was there giving his support.

The protest is partially initiated by LA Union officials who traditionally oppose Wal-Mart's entry in to local communities.  Union officials from 11 Unions have sent letters to public officials in LA county urging them to return or refuse campaign donations for the retailer.  "We're not going to get every elected official to agree to this overnight but we're going to build on it and continue to demand it of them.", says Maria Elena Durazo head of the LA county Federation of Labor which is the AFL-CIO arm in the county.  The LA federation has around 800,000 members.

Wal-Mart has become the primary target for trade Union officials in their warfare against low waged retailers although Wal-Mart's competitor, Target is also non Union.  Many Unionized stores are also waging a savage and largely successful war on their employees wages, benefits and rights.  The assault is successful primarily due to the refusal of the Labor officialdom to wage an offensive of our  own instead relying on the courts or pressuring a few Democrats to help.

I'm sure it won't hurt a few Democrats to refuse contributions from Wal-Mart as the retailer hasn't been giving significant funds to LA politicians.  The company last donated money to LA races in 2004 according to the Wall Street Journal.

My objection to this strategy of the Labor officialdom though is that they should be organizing Wal-Mart workers.  This naturally means a struggle, mobilizing those 800,000 or so members and the unorganized in a generalized offensive to Unionize not only Wal-Mart but the 93% or so of the total private/public sector workforce that are not Unionized.

This is a task, but we have one of the most favorable period in decades as hatred for the rich, bankers, corporations etc. is considerable.  The problem is that to mobilize people in this way you have to  make it worth their while, you have to fight for something concrete, wages, conditions, living standards etc.  Not just a "fair" wage, because that leaves it open----what's fair for the boss is not fair for us----but something concrete, a $15 an hour minimum or more in one small example (this could be based on the cost of an equal basket of goods for each region.) As the entire Labor officialdom accept that concessions have to be made in order to make workers competitive, not only domestically but globally competitive; and that the competition takes place between one set of employers and their employees on the one hand and and their competitors for market share on the other, the Labor hierarchy finds itself trapped by its own view of the world, the same outlook as the bosses.  This makes such an approach impossible for them to take voluntarily at least.

The Wal-Mart strategy reminds me a little of the Davis Bacon statute. Davis Bacon sounds good and is in the sense that a contractor receiving federal projects over a certain amount is bound by the law to pay the local prevailing wage as workers on other projects but it also allows the heads of organized Labor to sit back and use their favorite forum for defending workers rights and conditions----the bosses legal system.  Legislation forcing public projects to hire a certain percentage of local Labor does much the same as other communities respond in kind, workers are again thrown in to competition with each other for a dwindling job market which benefits the bosses as what will win more jobs with better pay and conditions is a united, direct action workers' movement. Critics have said that Davis Bacon was partially to protect local workers against migrant workers undercutting wages. It's not an accident that it was passed in the 1930's though.

During a campaign I worked on for Oakland City Council in 1996 the campaign argued for a massive public investment program in our communities and for the trade unions to set up hiring halls and training centers in these communities and that hiring be done on a first come first served basis.  This would tend to unite workers which is the only way to win what we need as opposed to dividing us as we all compete for jobs handed out to us at the 1%'s discretion with limits determined by them.

Rather than keeping Wal-Mart out of a community the strategy should be to unionize Wal-Mart as part of a generalized offensive to increase living standards and organize the unnorganized.

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