by Mike Benca
San Leandro Worker's Club
Member OE Local 3 Highway Maintenance Worker
Nearly 80 years ago autoworkers at a General Motors auto plant in Flint Michigan stopped working and sat down. Unlike common strikes of the day they did not picket outside plant gates, but instead occupied their work-stations inside the company owned plant for over a month. They were safer inside from the batons of the police on the picket lines. During the occupation, plant fire hoses were turned on the local police forces when they attempted to evict the rebellious workers. The workers held out for 44 days even when threatened with the possibility of state militia being used against them.
This courageous stand by the Flint auto workers marked a turning point in the UAW in that in the following years tens of thousands of auto workers swelled the ranks of that union and the entire domestic auto industry was unionized. Workers went on to win many gains in their standard of living in the following years after the sit down strike.
Over the last two years or so many fast food and retail workers in the United States have begun to organize with the backing of the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) and other labor affiliated groups. Sporadically planned but very coordinated actions have occurred over the last two years and culminated recently with what has been called the first ever sit-down strike in company history at a Southern California Walmart. OUR Walmart, the group supporting the workers has vowed to protest at hundreds of stores on the day after the US holiday Thanksgiving known as Black Friday.
While the brave workers who have spoken out for themselves and their coworkers and especially the ones who sat down and occupied stores last week should be commended it's important to ask just how effective these strategies are. If one goes to Blackfriday.org they will be directed to a list of rules governing how protesters should behave on the planned day of action on Black Friday next week. Supporters are asked to not be too loud so that workers cannot communicate with customers and that protesters should not block aisles or prevent shoppers from getting to cash registers. So again we will be fenced in and hundreds of feet away from the store's entrance and asked to not block traffic and obstruct shoppers from walking in through the front doors. A legal statement is easily visible on the website stating that the UFCW and OUR WalMart is not attempting to unionize the workers at this time.
Well the writers of this blog ask what are the goals then of this movement? I spoke recently by phone with a few organizers from OUR Walmart and was told that yes they are not totally pleased with the UFCW's steering of this effort, but none the less workers have seen some limited improvements in their working conditions since this latest movement began. I was not convinced and explained that I would be supporting these workers on Black Friday, but was not committing to following the "rules" that the organizers are asking supporters to follow. If we don't stop or at least deter shoppers from carrying out their purchases then what is the point of this entire movement?
The owners of Walmart with their combined worth of over160 billion dollars will not really take this movement seriously until we begin drastically impacting service at their stores around the country. The sit down strike in southern California last week was motivational, but also unfortunate in that customers and fellow workers are continuously seen in the footage walking right past the squatting strikers.
The union backed organizers will cite court rulings when defending their strategies and their refusal to block shoppers from entering stores or carrying out their purchases, but sometimes we have to break the laws. In the thirties and throughout our history workers faced the most brutal opposition from the employers, rules were broken and laws violated through mass direct action and strikes. This is how the unions were built and the methods we have to return to today to save what we have and organize the unorganized. This is what the union leadership refuses to do, mobilize the potential power of the millions of members in organized labor along with the unorganized. To do that, they have to fight for something substantial other than fewer concessions than the boss is asking for.
If enough of us stand up and carry out mass direct action, the forces attempting to hold us back will be put on the defensive and their court rulings and their power over these exploited workers will be broken.