From Ford to Walton
There’s a reason Walmart and Amazon aren’t unionized: it’s an enormously difficult task.
Here’s how longtime union strategist and writer Richard Yeselson, in a 2013 essay, put the question of organizing Walmart:
It is said that we have a “Wal-Mart economy” today in the same way we had a “Fordist economy” at midcentury. Wal-Mart employs about 1.4 million in the United States, about 1 percent of the entire workforce, a bit lower than the ratio that the auto workers represented in the U.S. workforce of 1940. The difference is that Wal-Mart has more than 4,200 stores in America today, and GM and Ford together had perhaps 160 auto plants in 1940. The auto plants of that day averaged perhaps 2,500 workers each. Steel plants were similarly large; Wal-Mart stores average about 300 workers. Given that Wal-Mart’s anti-union animus is as fierce as that of the great carmakers during the Depression, it would be as difficult today to organize a single store of 300 as it was then to organize a giant auto plant. The recent courageous activism of several hundred workers at Wal-Mart stores around the country only underscores the overwhelming challenge of organizing the entire company.
It is much harder for Walmart workers to organize across the company than it was for industrial workers at the height of the union movement (and it was very hard for those workers: it took sit-down strikes and campaigns that killed several of those workers) because they are spread over many more, smaller workplaces.
Amazon, while employing larger numbers of people at its warehouses, is a similar story: the company deploys every anti-union measure in the book, from tracking workers’ organizing activities to illegally retaliating against troublemakers, to paying the infamous Pinkerton agency to infiltrate facilities. That a single Amazon warehouse, located in Bessemer, Alabama, is unionizing is a remarkable development given these facts: the odds these workers are up against are incalculable.
To raise the issue of the obstacles arrayed against worker organization isn’t meant to encourage defeatism or apathy but to ensure clear thinking about how it is that companies like Walmart and Amazon reap fortunes off of a mass casualty event and don’t even give their workers the minimum they need to survive. There has never been a more pressing time to get serious about how to stop the rich from profiting off pain and misery. The inequalities between what the pandemic has meant for higher-ups at Walmart and Amazon and what it has meant for those who work for them is a stark reminder of who holds the power, and who holds nothing but a few extra pennies an hour.