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(en) US, Oakland, The Dawn* #2, Aug. 2004, We Are Not Anti-Union: We Are Pro-Associate by F.K. Witt

From Worker <a-infos-en@ainfos.ca>
Date Fri, 6 Aug 2004 07:48:56 +0200 (CEST)

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There has been a good deal of talk about Wal-Mart lately in
the liberal and mainstream press, a growing concern with
what is called the "Wal-Martization of America," that
is to say, the lowering of wages, the lowering of quality,
the near-total reliance on goods manufactured in foreign
countries, and general anger with the "ugliness" of
Wal-Mart. There has also been some action taken against
Wal-Mart. In April, a majority of workers at a Wal-Mart
in Weyburn, Saskatchewan signed union cards with the
United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW), and a vote
is moving forward. Also that month, voters in Ingleside,
Ca. rejected a referendum vote sponsored by the company to
build a Supercenter (combined Wal-Mart and grocery). During
the Southern California grocery workers strike, the
threat of "Wal-Martization" was held above the head
of the workers by both the grocery stores and by the
workers" own union. In addition, a class-action lawsuit,
representing over a million women, has been moving forward
charging sexual discrimination by Wal-Mart against the
advancement of women into supervisory positions.

…in eight years Wal-Mart will employ more people within
the US than the federal government…All of this is part
of a general backlash against the "Big Box" stores,
the main examples of which include Wal-Mart, Target, K-Mart
and Home Depot. These stores are accused of driving down
prevailing wages, of ruining small businesses, creating
traffic problems, and generally causing a nuisance in
the communities they "invade." Wal-Mart is the king
of these stores, the undisputed leader in low prices,
low wages, and high sales. Last year Wal-Mart was number
one in the Fortune 500 for the third year in a row,
with sales last year of $25 billion, or almost 2.5% of
the US Gross National Product. Also last year, Walmart
employed 1.5 million people, and this figure grows by
7.5% annually. This means that .8% of people employed
in the US are employed by Wal-Mart, and if projections
for growth hold out, that number will be 1.4% in ten
years. To put this in some perspective, the U.S. federal
government employed 1.9 million in 2002, and this grows
by .3% annually. In other words, in eight years Wal-Mart
will employ more people within the US than the federal
government will. Although we often think of Wal-Mart as
a purely American phenomenon, it has about 25% of its
stores outside the US, and is the largest retailer in
Canada and Mexico.

There is little doubt that Wal-Mart is the future of
retail employment. What we have been witnessing in
the last thirty-odd years in retail sales is the same
thing that happened one hundred years ago in industry
and manufacturing: automation, industrialization, and
Taylorization (i.e., the "rationalizing" by
reducing each task a worker performs into its smallest
possible unit“ of production). Since 1972 the real
hourly wage of retail employees has dropped more than
the average real hourly wage overall. In addition, hours
worked have declined from about 35 to 30, thus compounding
the problem. This model has been hugely profitable for
the corporations.

…skills are taken out of the hands of the workers and
put into the hands of management.The purpose of these
processes of automation and Taylorization is to take
away from workerrs their knowledge of how things are
done on the shop floor. By turning each worker into an
easily replacable cog in the machinery of production,
skills are taken out of the hands of the workers and
put into the hands of management. Retail work, like all
trades, relied on the worker having a great deal of skill
and knowledge, passed down from worker to worker. These
skills gave workers a great power over their employers:
it was exceedingly difficult to replace a worker, due to
the huge cost of retraining. Even worse, if the workers
were to go on strike, there was nobody around who knew
how to run the business“ certainly management had no
idea. But today, no worker at Wal-Mart needs to know
anything more than what can be learned in a day, the
specific task they need to play in the assembly line
process of selling. The modern "Big Box" has been
almost completely automated. The workers are expendable,
and they do indeed expend themselves: Wal-Mart has a 25%
annual turnover rate. (Fortunately for Wal-Mart, it only
costs about $2500 to search for, hire, and train a new
worker.) Employees work in every part of the store, from
the checkout line to the stock room. This assembly-line
mode of selling is part of what has made so many products
so affordable (the other part, is, of course, criminally
underpaid foreign workers). Because the knowledge of
working processes is held in the hands of management,
strikes are less effective.

Is there anything that could be done about this, in the
immediate future, for the benefit of those who work at
these stores? Despite the pessimism of existing unions,
there is historical precedent for workers raising their
wages and gaining job control in jobs as deskilled as
these, against employers as powerful as Wal-Mart. One
example is the GM production line workers organized by
the newly born UAW in the 1930s.

At the time of the 1936/37 sit down strike in Flint,
Mich., General Motors, was the largest industrial employer
in the US, and employed a quarter of a million people,
or three-quarters of a percent of the nations workforce,
almost exactly the .8% that Wal-Mart employs today. In
other words, Wal-Mart is, relatively speaking, in about
the same position of strength that GM was in the 1930s
(and afterwards). Of course, in absolute terms, Wal-Mart
has six times the employees that GM did. But in terms of
power, they are at almost equal positions. Nobody can say
that GM was any less anti-union than Wal-Mart is today.

Between January 1934 and July 1936 GM spent about
twelve million (inflation-adjusted) dollars to fight
unionization. It employed a system of spies which even a
Senate committee described as "colossal."

But the United Auto Workers, a union only a year old,
part of the CIO, a newly formed organization at that time
separate from the AFL, was able, with militant tactics
and the strength of the rank and file, along with the
work of a very committed minority, to unionize GM and to,
eventually, turn the automotive industry into one of the
bastions of working-class power and prestige.

"We were a pretty good bunch of guys in those days. No
Seniority. No Union. No Contract. No Committeeman. No
Pay. No Nothing but work, work, work, and more work. There
wasn't a war on then, but we worked 14 hours a day, 7 days
a week. Absenteeism was unheard of. Failure to report
to work cost you your˜job."" Ken Malone, "37
sit-downer.The famous Flint Sit-Down Strike of 1936/37
was begun on 30 December 1936 in two Fisher body plants
in Flint, Mich. It had been preceded two days earlier
by a Cleveland Fisher plant sit-down strike, but it was
Flint"s strike that was to be the more famous; the strike
would spread to 50 plants and 140,000 employees. The
strikers demanded: a national conference between the
UAW and GM; abolition of all piecework systems of pay;
a six-hour day and 30-hour week with time and one-half
for work above these; minimum wage "commensurate with
American standard of living"; reinstatement of all
employees "unjustly discharged"; straight seniority;
speed of production to be mutually determined by each plant
management and shop committee; recognition of the UAW as
the sole bargaining agent for General Motors employees. On
11 January 1937 an attempt by police to dislodge strikers
from the plant was repelled by the strikers judicious use
of the materials at hand: the cops were pelted with hinges
and sprayed with water. This fight has been famous ever
since as "The Battle of the Running Bulls," bulls
being the term at the time for what we would call the
cops. Despite GM holding the upper hand of injunctions and
court orders, issued by a judge with thousands in GM stock,
the strikers ruled on the ground and in the plants. The
strike dragged on through the winter, and the union had
to deal a critical blow to GM. The UAW managed to take
over the essential Chevy No. 4 plant, a task that was
accomplished by staging a fake sit-down strike at Chevy
No. 9, while a larger contingent took the real target,
No. 4. GM caved, and on 3 November negotiations began;
the strike ended on the 11th.

The UAW had gained recognition and many of its demands,
though tragically for us today, they didn"t gain the
thirty hour week; it might have established a precedent.

What is particularly interesting, and not very well known,
is the fact that it was often a small number of strikers
who were holding the plants. Fisher Body No. 1, typically
employing about 7,000 employees, was at times held by as
few as 90; and Fisher Body No. 2, with a regular population
of 1000, had only 17 strikers at one point. It is unknown
how many UAW members there were at the time of the strike,
but when UAW organizers arrived in the summer of "36,
there were only about 100 members in Flint. The workers
recruited through the efforts of only about five organizers
were able to strike at the heart of GM and take it down.

I am not here suggesting that the UAW was a perfect union,
or that it did not later have its troubles, and certainly
not that it might ever have been an instrument for
anarchist revolution. But the simple fact of the matter is,
that no matter what the problems“ the anti-democratic
tactics and corruption“ with this union, it was able
to give the auto workers unprecedented job control and
wages, in a industry and a job that was formerly one of the
dirtiest, lowest paying, crap jobs ever. And anything that
increases the job control and conditions of workers brings
us one, little, tiny step closer to absolute job control.

What can we do to "stop" Wal-Mart? The question to ask
is, as anarchists, why bother? The force of Wal-Mart is
essentially unstoppable: the centralization, automization
and Taylorization that Wal-Mart has introduced to retail
sales is simply too profitable for us to stop. If one
"community" keeps out Wal-Mart (and by community I
mean what is typically meant: the community of business
owners), it can simply move to a nearby one. Trying to
stop it with community activism is like trying to stop a
freight train with our bodies. What could be done, and what
is more, what would have a real impact on people"s lives,
is getting to the people inside that train. If working at
Wal-Mart has to be a mind-numbing, stupid, repetitive crap
job, at least it could be well paid, mind-numbing, stupid,
repetitive crap job. The most important task we have is
giving people more control of their work, more control
over their daily lives. Every little step that we take
along this road is a step closer to a world in which we,
ourselves, manage every aspect of our day-to-day lives,
no matter how small these steps might at first seem to
us. This is the most important task of whoever calls
themself a "revolutionary."
* [Ed. Note: The Dawn is an Anarcho-Communist journal]

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