Organizing via Facebook in the Age of Union-Busting

The New York Times’s Steven Greenhouse has an interesting report today on a group of Walmart workers who are organizing—just not in the traditional sense.

The vehemently anti-union Walmart crushes any attempt to unionize (at least in the U.S. and Canada), so a group called OUR Walmart is starting a social networking presence intended to pressure Walmart for better wages and treatment. But it won’t try to collectively bargain on behalf of its members.

It’s trying to emulate other groups formed at places like IBM that have been hard to organize.

Walmart has so destroyed any possibility of unionizing its stores, and the political climate has shifted so much against labor, that unions, and people who hope to create them, are reduced to using Facebook and PR campaigns as tools to “negotiate” with Walmart. That’s pretty pathetic when you think about it.

They can’t strike, so they’ll push “like.” (And don’t get me wrong, I’m not denigrating their efforts, I’m just saying it shows what they’re up against.)

The Times is good to point to signs of astroturf:

Although the Web site of OUR Walmart depicts the organization as a grass-roots effort by Wal-Mart workers, the United Food and Commercial Workers has provided a sizable sum — the union will not say how much — to help the group get started. The union has also paid hundreds of its members to go door to door to urge Wal-Mart workers to join the group.

In addition, the organizers are receiving help from ASGK Public Strategies, a consulting firm long associated with David Axelrod, President Obama’s top political strategist.

But what really makes the story are the great quotes the Times gets from some awfully brave workers:

“I’m hoping that OUR Walmart will make a difference in the long run,” said Margaret Van Ness, an overnight stocker at a Wal-Mart store in Lancaster, Calif., about 60 miles north of Los Angeles. Ms. Van Ness earns $11.40 an hour after four years of working there.

“The managers at our store and others are running over their associates as if they didn’t exist,” she said. “They treat them like cattle. They don’t seem to care about respect for the individuals. We need to bring back respect.”

And this:

“Someone has to stand up to say something,” said Deondra Thomas, a shoe department employee at a Dallas Wal-Mart, who earns $8.90 an hour after three years there. “So many people have been quiet for so long. A lot of us think Wal-Mart is an awesome company, but as far as the employees, they treat us like dirt.”

As a journalist, sometimes it’s good to stop and admire the willingness and bravery of sources who consent to be on the record. These women make $23,000 and $18,000 a year, respectively (assuming they get forty hours a week, and that’s a big assumption), and they don’t have union protection, but they’re willing to go on the record in The New York Times to speak truth to power.

Put it this way: I was in a newspaper union for nearly six years, and I don’t think there were more than two or three brave souls who ever went on the record on our many fights with management. There were plenty of anonymous snipes made it into the press, though.

Let’s hope Van Ness and Thomas still have jobs after this story, something that would be worth Greenhouse keeping an eye on.

Good work by him and the Times.

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Ryan Chittum is a former Wall Street Journal reporter, and deputy editor of The Audit, CJR's business section. If you see notable business journalism, give him a heads-up at Follow him on Twitter at @ryanchittum. Tags: , , , ,