by Sam Talbot
In Secaucus, NJ, the Black Friday protest at the Walmart Supercenter certainly had some of the feeling of a populist uprising. Even measured against the gigantic scale of the big box retailer, the protest was a smashing success, and created the kind of confrontation Occupy thrives on, where the numbers, energy, and creativity of the protesters effectively changed the rules of engagement. The Secaucus Police and Walmart private security were unable to contain the actions – in successive waves, the protesters occupied, sang, and marched their way past police lines, “went civilian” and flowed past them into the store, and diverted, divided, and confused the cops by leading them on winding marches which tied up the parking lot. Meanwhile, inside the store, we conducted mic checks, sang Christmas carols ridiculing Walmart’s bad behavior, and, perhaps most entertainingly, inserted a series of subverted advertisements which told the truth about Walmart in the same bubbly, optimistic fonts that Walmart uses to sham the American public.
The Secaucus protest was a collaboration between Occupy Wall Street (especially the 99 Pickets group), members of the Walmart Free NYC Coalition, ALIGN, Retail Action Project, Occupy Bergen County, the Rude Mechanical Orchestra, the Guitarmy, Reverend Billy and the Church of Stop Shopping, and others. The broad interest evoked by a target like Walmart was clearly part of what drove both the organizational interest and the turnout, which was estimated at about 400. Also helping was the fact that the protest was mirrored by thousands of other actions across the country, making this one of the many days of action Occupy has participated in that have achieved a truly national scope.
If – as some have suggested – the Black Friday protests mark the resurgence of a mass labor movement, it would mark a major turning-point for Occupy. The natural affinity and shared motivations between labor and Occupy mean that a renewed cycle of labor struggle would almost certainly redound to Occupy’s benefit. If we are to be honest, though, we have to acknowledge that – as far as labor protest goes – this can only be counted as a dry run. Although community and customer support was overwhelming, direct participation of Walmart workers was far more modest. The aims of the national strike were symbolic and political – no boycott was called, there was no expectation of seriously effecting Walmart’s bottom line.
To call it symbolic does not mean that it was insignificant. OUR Walmart, the group which called for the walkout, had the immediate objective of defending the right of Walmart employees to engage in protected collective action without fear of retaliation. This right is the elemental building-block of labor struggle. So far, it seems that they have achieved this key goal – and inspired other workers’ organizations to try the same, such as fast food workers in New York. Whether or not such protests will spread and deepen into a new strategy for the movement of the 99% remains to be seen.
If you want to get involved:
Rebrand Walmart: tell the truth about Walmart inside their own stores!
Support OUR Walmart: get involved with Walmart workers who are standing together to win respect and a voice at work.
Join the 99 Pickets Brigade: sign up at 99pickets.org and help build a mass workers’ movement.