Why Walmart Organizers Can't Build A Union The Old-Fashioned Way

A blog about business and economics.
Nov. 24 2012 10:27 AM

Why Walmart Organizers Can't Build A Union The Old-Fashioned Way

Walmart employees and their supporters protest outside a Walmart store in Paramount, California on November 23, 2012.

Photo by FREDERIC J. BROWN/AFP/Getty Images

Thinking about worker protests at Walmart and reading a biography of FDR, it's striking how far we are from the sort of context in which the United Auto Workers became a force in the industry. One key moment was a sit-down strike at a crucial General Motors facility in Flint, MI. The strike was crippling to GM's activities because the factory in question was basically a choke-point in the overall supply chain. But it was also crippling to GM's activities because the workers hadn't just walked off the job (where they could be fired and fairly easily replaced at a time of high unemployment), they actually occupied the factory building preventing its use.

The equivalent would be angry workers not striking or protesting outside a Walmart, but actually seizing control of the store and shutting it down. This is, of course, illegal but according to Jean Edward Smith's account, neither the president nor the governor of Michigan was' particularly impressed:

Roosevelt was as surprised as anyone but refused to use force against the strikers. As he told Frances Perkins, “Well, it is illegal, but what law are they breaking? The law of trespass, and that is about the only law that could be invoked. And what do you do when a man trespasses on your property? You can order him off. You can get the sheriff to order him off.… But shooting it out and killing a lot of people because they have violated the law of trespass somehow offends me. I just don’t see that as the answer. The punishment doesn’t fit the crime. Why can’t these fellows in General Motors meet with the committee of workers? Talk it out. It wouldn’t be so terrible.”
Michigan governor Frank Murphy saw it the same way. “I’m not going down in history as Bloody Murphy,” he told a friend. “If I send soldiers in on the [strikers] there’d be no telling how many would be killed.” Murphy also authorized state relief payments for the families of the strikers. When [Vice President John Nance] Garner pressed FDR about Murphy’s refusal to take action, Roosevelt held his ground. “It was the hottest argument we ever had,” said Garner.

Of course the first step in the challenge here is that there's no guarantee ex ante that troops won't be sent it. To create a situation in which politicians fear creating a bloody massacre, the workers have to be motivated and prepared to risk a bloody massacre. That's a high bar.

But in today's circumstances, even if you had the motivated workforce and relatively sympathetic elected officials you'd face a still bigger problem. Today's labor unions have something to lose. If the United Food and Commercial Workers organizes an illegal takeover of a facility, you don't need to hit back with a violent attack on the striking workers. The union is an up-and-running enterprise with pension funds and real estate assets and professional staff and thus is subject to all kinds of bloodless financial penalties that anyone would be loathe to undergo.

Unions aren't sufficiently accepted into American economic life to make the organization of one at a large employer a routine matter, but they're far too accepted to engage in the kind of flagrant civil disobedience that helped build them in the first place.

Matthew Yglesias is the executive editor of Vox and author of The Rent Is Too Damn High.



Smash and Grab

Will competitive Senate contests in Kansas and South Dakota lead to more late-breaking races in future elections?

Stop Panicking. America Is Now in Very Good Shape to Respond to the Ebola Crisis.

The 2014 Kansas City Royals Show the Value of Building a Mediocre Baseball Team

The GOP Won’t Win Any Black Votes With Its New “Willie Horton” Ad

Sleater-Kinney Was Once America’s Best Rock Band

Can it be again?


Forget Oculus Rift

This $25 cardboard box turns your phone into an incredibly fun virtual reality experience.

I Am 25. I Don’t Work at Facebook. My Doctors Want Me to Freeze My Eggs.

These Companies in Japan Are More Than 1,000 Years Old

  News & Politics
Oct. 20 2014 8:14 PM You Should Be Optimistic About Ebola Don’t panic. Here are all the signs that the U.S. is containing the disease.
Business Insider
Oct. 21 2014 11:27 AM There Is Now a Real-life Hoverboard You Can Preorder for $10,000
Dear Prudence
Oct. 21 2014 9:18 AM Oh, Boy Prudie counsels a letter writer whose sister dresses her 4-year-old son in pink tutus.
  Double X
The XX Factor
Oct. 20 2014 6:17 PM I Am 25. I Don't Work at Facebook. My Doctors Want Me to Freeze My Eggs.
  Slate Plus
Tv Club
Oct. 20 2014 7:15 AM The Slate Doctor Who Podcast: Episode 9 A spoiler-filled discussion of "Flatline."
Brow Beat
Oct. 21 2014 10:41 AM Taylor Swift Just Went to No. 1 on iTunes Canada With Eight Seconds of Static 
Future Tense
Oct. 21 2014 10:43 AM Social Networking Didn’t Start at Harvard It really began at a girls’ reform school.
  Health & Science
Bad Astronomy
Oct. 21 2014 7:00 AM Watch the Moon Eat the Sun: The Partial Solar Eclipse on Thursday, Oct. 23
Sports Nut
Oct. 20 2014 5:09 PM Keepaway, on Three. Ready—Break! On his record-breaking touchdown pass, Peyton Manning couldn’t even leave the celebration to chance.