After Black Friday, anti-Walmart campaign goes international

Protesters demonstrate outside a Walmart store in Chicago November 23, 2012.
Protesters demonstrate outside a Walmart store in Chicago November 23, 2012.
REUTERS/John Gress

Weeks after this year’s nationwide Black Friday strike, disgusted Walmart workers and sympathetic activist groups are still organizing against the company. Now, however, the campaign has extended well beyond America’s borders.

“You don’t bring Walmart to the table with just one country’s workers stepping up,” said Erica Smiley, director of campaigns at Jobs with Justice, a labor organizing group. On Tuesday, her organization participated in an action at New Jersey’s Port of Newark, where they attempted to stop a cargo ship from unloading Walmart goods made in Bangladesh.

Officials from the New Jersey police, Homeland Security, and the Metropolitan Transit Authority monitored the protesters and escorted them to a pen far away from the ship itself.

“In terms of trying to stop the ship from being unloaded it didn’t go very well,” said Smiley with a laugh. However, she said, the protesters were able to “express solidarity and read statements from the Bangladeshi union.”

Walmart’s manufacturing operations in Bangladesh have become a flashpoint for critics and protesters in recent weeks after 112 Bangladeshi factory workers died in a November 24 fire—the day after Black Friday.

On the night of November 25, Walmart said they were still “trying to determine if the factory has a current relationship with Walmart or one of our suppliers,” but The Nation’s Josh Eidelson has since obtained photographs and documents which suggest that the mega-retailer did, in fact, have a business arrangement with the factory.

Furthermore, writes Eidelson, Walmart played a major role in “defeating a proposal for retail corporations to pay for safety improvements” to Bangladeshi factories.

“The fact that it’s 100 years since the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory and we’re still seeing those kinds of fires is completely unnecessary,” said Dan Schladerman, director of the United Food and Commercial Workers’ Walmart organizing hub, Making Change at Walmart. He said that his organization and the worker group OUR Walmart had already done the “foundational work” to internationalize their campaign before the fire occurred, and that the incident served as a reminder that “people ought to do something.”

“I guess in some ways, it hasn’t so much changed the campaign as it’s made the case for what we’ve been saying all along,” said Smiley.

In fact, both Jobs with Justice and OUR Walmart have been in contact with Bangladeshi factory workers for at least a couple of years. After a similar fire at a Bangladeshi factory in December 2011, Jobs with Justice even brought members of the Bangladesh Workers Solidarity Center on a tour of the United States to protest textile factory conditions.

Now, Making Change at Walmart is actively growing the international component of their activity. On Friday, December 14, Walmart workers in 10 countries held a global day of action to protest the corporation. Making Change at Walmart partnered with UNI, a global union federation, to mobilize workers in the United States, United Kingdom, South Africa, and multiple countries in Latin America. Schladerman also said that workers in South Africa, Argentina and Brazil, among other places, were forming “sister relationships” with employees of U.S.-based stores so that they could exchange information.

“There’s got to be a lot of planning and conversations and hard work that’s going to be happening in early 2013, but I think a lot of people are excited to see just how fast it’s moved this year,” said Schladerman.

“Black Friday was just the arm in a much bigger fight,” said Smiley.