The Spark

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.” — Karl Marx

What about Wal-Marts?

May 3, 2004

For the last couple of months, Wal-Mart has been trying to get approval from the Chicago City Council for two new stores, one to be located on the South Side and the other on the West Side, both in black neighborhoods, where residents have little access to big stores. Nonetheless, union leaders and a number of Aldermen on the City Council have campaigned against giving approval to the store.

Alderman Emma Mitts of the 37th Ward on the West Side said in defense of allowing the store, "We've got teenagers who need work. They've got to start somewhere. I started out in a grocery store. What's wrong with them starting and being trained?"

Those against the stores being in Chicago say that Chicago is a "union town" and that Wal-Mart is a notoriously anti-union company. Wal-Mart spokesman John Biso countered that "Target is not union. K-Mart is not union." This is true, and it's a commentary on the failure of the unions that are fighting to stop Wal-Mart.

This "Stop Wal-Mart" stance has long been the policy of the United Food & Commercial Workers Union all around the country toward all these chains. It campaigns to keep the stores out of areas where it has some political influence, and calls upon people to boycott the stores if they are built anyway.

In fact this kind of boycott – done over the head of the workers – is nothing but a ploy to try to force employers to sign up with them. It's been notably unsuccessful – not just at Wal-Mart but at K-Mart and Target. At best the workers just ignore it, at worst it turns the workers against unions.

It's not a surprise that workers hired into the stores have often not reacted kindly to a union that calls for a boycott of the store where they were working without ever engaging the workers themselves in the decision.

Of course, the workers need to organize – at Wal-Mart, at Target and K-Mart, and at all the other places they find themselves today. To do it will require something more than a publicity campaign – it requires the determination, combativity and imagination that workers have shown over and over again when they themselves decided to get organized.