It’s too early to tell how effective the Black Friday against Walmart’s low pay and abusive working conditions were. The early reports from management and the organizers are wildly at odds with each other.
However, a new front may open up in the Walmart disputes: that of disruption to its international shipments. It’s too early to tell if this is serious or merely sympathetic window dressing, but the four and a half million strong International Transport Workers’ Federation had cleared its throat. From the Guardian:
Now the International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF) has written to shipping owners and ship captains who carry Walmart goods and asked them to contact the gigantic global company and express support for the protesting workers. “Walmart workers taking industrial action know that their jobs are at risk. The least we can do to help is use our expertise at sea and relations with the shipping industry to back them in any way we can.”
ITF acting general secretary Steve Cotton told the Guardian: “We’re talking to captains and the ship operators moving Walmart goods, and asking them to register their concerns with the company about its treatment of staff – and the impact that could have on trade.”
As readers no doubt know, Walmart’s business model depends on being able to import cheap goods from overseas. It also uses the “just in time” inventory practices first developed by Japanese automakers, so it does not typically carry large inventory buffers. If international transport workers were to start interfering with or delaying Walmart shipments, it could prove to be disruptive.
The flip side is that the ITF hasn’t taken any serious action yet, nor is it certain that it will. Its polite request of captains and ship owners to lodge concerns isn’t a real protest; indeed, it serves as a low cost way to both make a bit of noise and canvass as to how much sympathy for the Walmart workers there is in the shipping industry ex the union members themselves. In other words, they may also be probing to find out how many chips they’d spend if they were to move into selective action (as in the union as a next step might target a few shipments just to demonstrate they could do real damage, and they could do that at little real cost to themselves if they were to find an ideologically aligned ship owner).
Guardian took note of Walmart’s defensive-looking reactions:
But the protests do appear to have rattled the firm. Walmart has filed a complaint with the labor board asserting that OUR Walmart’s protests violate federal law that prevents 30 days of picketing when a union is seeking recognition. Walmart says the protests fit that description and are actually sponsored by the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union. It has sought an injunction to prohibit the protests. Both OUR Walmart and the UFCW deny those allegations and say that they are not seeking union recognition.
Again, Walmart tends to be aggressive legally, so it isn’t clear that this is anything other than standard operating procedure. But Walmart’s business model is so dependent on super cheap wages that it isn’t clear how far it could go in accommodating workers even if it were to get religion. It would have to radically rethink how it operates, it is unlikely to do so under anything than extreme duress.