Fight against Walmart goes global

The transposing of marketing tactics from North America is well documented with the latest ploy in Britain being ‘Black Friday’. Many looked on in bewilderment as shoppers fought in supermarket stores over ‘discount’ products such as TVs. However, we should not be surprised as the public is bombarded by tactics to prise open our wallets and credit cards as consumer demand remains anaemic after the global depression. For fans of TV programme, Mad Men, one gets to appreciate the skills and effort involved in marketing and creating demand for products which we really don’t need, indebt us or endanger our health.

In America, the Wirecutter website analysed the various Black Friday deals, discovering almost all of them were bogus. Gadgets that were supposedly discount bargains were, in fact, 20% more expensive than before Black Friday. Of the 54,000 deals Wirecutter investigated, less than 1% were worthwhile. So if this isn’t about bargains and helping hard-pressed consumers, what is about? Well, it’s far more sinister than a marketing ploy – it is specifically about a strain of cut-throat capitalism being exported around the world even more aggressive than the Washington consensus and which the notion of trickle-down economics is anathema to it. It’s called Walmartism.

With close to 2.2m employees worldwide, Walmart has built a reputation for low wages, poor working conditions, inadequate health care and strong anti-unionism. It is the world’s biggest private sector employer so quite simply what happens at Walmart matters. The poorest 10% of people in Britain would take on average 11m years to earn the wealth of its ruling Walton family (who also control Asda).

Walmart has begun to test Black Fridays in other countries. In Mexico, they have been coined Buen Fin. However, not enough people around the world are aware the company goes by different names in different countries: Asda in Britain, Massmart in South Africa.

After the successful Black Friday strikes and protests at Walmart stores across North America in recent years, the campaign against this corporate Leviathan went global on 19 November 2014. The global day of demonstration proceeded the successful #FastFoodGlobal campaign in May last year which witnessed the day of awareness go viral and become one of the top trending hashtags on twitter last year. This was no mean feat for the labour movement which has struggled to gain traction on social media by focussing on workers issues. In essence, social movement unionism in America was exporting a model of campaigning to the world which we could participate in, namely, a global response to Walmart’s economic strategy.

The FastFoodGlobal campaign, designed to improve the appalling wages and conditions set by the fast food industry, was an example of the power of social media fusing with on-the-ground energy to highlight corporate abuse. The success of the Occupy Movement, as well as revolutions from Egypt to Hong Kong, in harnessing both elements is well documented. However, the global union movement is now getting to grips with a dynamic which combines the spontaneity required on social media through turning people out on to the streets in conjunction with organisation and a rigorous programme for action.

On 19 November 2014, just nine days before Black Friday, the global union, UNI, coordinated thousands of local actions across the world to send a message to Walmart that it’s time to treat workers with respect and not simply as an economic unit in the market place. The demands are simple:

A) Respect: Workers who assert their freedom of association in an attempt to resolve issues or improve working conditions frequently face company retribution. Workers are harassed and intimidated by management when they try to voice concerns. So workers are asking for respect, safety and job security.
B) Living Wages: Extremely low wages along with inconsistent work scheduling make it difficult for workers in many countries to support their families. In fact, due to the low wages of workplaces Governments in effect are subsidising the company by providing entitlements.
C) Employment Security: The imposition of part-time work, casual employment contracts or – in the case of Walmart’s 1.4 million US workers no contracts at all – means workers have no employment security. Workers are asking that full-time, permanent work be the rule rather than the exception.

The day of action resulted in actions using the #WalmartGlobal hashtag in an effort to make people aware of the presence of the company in their country on social media as well as hundreds of protests in countries around the world at stores controlled by Walmart.

It’s time to stand up against Walmart to ensure its cut-throat strain of capitalism does not penetrate every part of our world – it’s time this fight went global as it is in all our interests to know exactly what Walmart is exporting and not just its Black Fridays.

Andrew Brady is director of Union Solidarity International.