Challenge to Walmart

The world’s largest private-sector employer and biggest US corporation faces renewed workplace unrest. Workers who founded OUR Walmart two years ago are promising protests to coincide with Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving and the busiest shopping day of the year. They will demand a living wage, affordable healthcare, stable work schedules and an end to retaliation against their members.

OUR Walmart hopes to build on the success of last year, when Black Friday saw 500 workers walk off the job and join 30,000 demon­strators across 47 states. Employees blockaded the road to a store in Los Angeles for two hours before being arrested as 1,000 supporters looked on. Dramatic actions such as this gained traction in both traditional and social media, which has helped connect workers, dispersed across the US, who are brave enough to stand up to their employer.

Actions carried on throughout the year. In June, 100 workers joined a two-week strike and embarked on bus journeys across the US, echoing the civil rights movement’s ‘Freedom Riders’.

Walmart, a corporation famous for its hostility to unions, responded by disciplining 50 strikers and illegally firing another 20. Undeterred, OUR Walmart hit back on 5 September with protests that led to over 100 arrests.

Workers are mobilizing in difficult circumstances. As trades unions are banned at Walmart – which has simply closed down stores that have held union certification elections – activists do not seek legal recognition or collective bargaining rights. As one organizer explained: ‘We are taking action now rather than waiting for the law to do something.’

As a result, the organization has embraced participatory structures and forged strong community alliances. Its focus on leveraging greater associational power offers a glimpse of the path towards much-need labour movement renewal in the US.

Don't let them steal our future!

Unfortunately I couldn’t travel to Copenhagen for the UN COP 15 climate summit. So, along with other climate campers who were equally outraged by the unfolding travesty across the North Sea, I decided that I had to do something to mark my anguish. For many months it had been clear that any deal made at the summit would be so flawed that it would do nothing to stop climate change and would mark the beginning of a new age of colonialism: a colonialism of emissions. The only deal left on the table was one based around the Clean Development Mechanism and carbon trading. Carbon trading has been shown to be hopeless at stopping climate change but brilliant at creating huge profits for Western corporations (for more about carbon trading check out the short video: The Story of Cap and Trade.)

The only question left was: what could our small band actually do? After reading the article Taking Care of Business in the New Internationalist, it became clear that the impending failure of the Copenhagen summit was due to the fact that corporate interests had captured the UN process. These interests are hidden behind lobbying federations, chief among them being the International Chamber of Commerce (ICC), which was set up for the 1992 Rio Earth Summit and has relentlessly argued for less regulation and less tax, as well as unproven mechanisms such as carbon capture storage and cap and trade. Even US Congressman Rick Boucher admitted cap and trade strengthens the case for utilities to continue coal use. Anything which promotes coal isn’t a solution but a dangerous distraction. The ICC represents thousands of corporations including BP, Exxon-Mobil and Shell.

I sent the article to my friends and we agreed decided to try and highlight the role of the ICC in derailing the talks and to also disrupt the work of the ICC as much as possible. We donned robber outfits, painted a banner which read ‘ICC: International Climate Criminals’ and proceeded to super-glue and bike D-lock ourselves to the front entrance of the ICC offices. The action was a great success: we managed to stay there for over five hours before the police were able to cut, unglue and arrest us. We were, however, released just in time to pick up one of the remaining Evening Standards which had printed a large photo of the action.

Last Tuesday we were fined £400, but we would do it again to highlight that the businesses the ICC represents stand to make billions from the carbon racket. We should be putting people before profits! We want strong caps, solid laws, and climate taxes on business, the very thing the ICC are fighting against. We can’t let them steal our future.

You can see photos and videos of the action at and

Shared Planet

Last month I attended Britain’s biggest student conference on world poverty, human rights and the environment: Shared Planet. It is run by People & Planet, the country’s largest grassroots student campaigning network, which boasts over 130 groups in schools, colleges and universities.

The weekend was packed with enlightening workshops for the 500 attendees; this year’s event was especially inspiring as many of those who came along hailed from schools and universities beyond People & Planet’s traditional strongholds. I found two sessions particularly fascinating: one by Eriel Tchekwie Deranger, who belongs to the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation of Northern Alberta, Canada, and another by Reyna Elizabeth Dominguez Martinez, the Acting Secretary of CGT – a trade union federation in Honduras.

Eriel explained how the Alberta tar sands are the dirtiest fuel on earth, producing more than three times as much CO2 per barrel as conventional oil. The extraction process uses more natural gas in a day than the heating of 3.2 million Canadian homes for a year, and there is still plenty of oil in the ground (1,350 billion barrels in Alberta alone) whose extraction would push us over a tipping point and into runaway climate change. The tar sands extraction is destroying indigenous lands, including ancient forests, and heralds the death not only of their way of life, but also of the indigenous people themselves. For such is the odious nature of tar sands that their production gives rise to a multitude of cancerous toxic chemicals. This is why indigenous communities no longer call it ‘dirty oil’ but rather ‘bloody oil’. We also learned that the UK Government must take some responsibility for this environmental and humanitarian catastrophe, thanks to its 83 per cent ownership of the Royal Bank of Scotland, which is a major funder of the project (to the tune of $2.7 billion). On the upside, this makes it easy for people in Britain to get involved in the campaign and have a real impact.

Reyna had possibly the most inspiring story of all. She, along with 1,200 co-workers, was fired in January for forming a trade union at Jerzees de Honduras (JDH) – a garments factory notorious for its abuse of its workers. The union activists’ efforts led to JDH being the first-ever unionized garment factory in Honduras. However, Russell Athletic, a subsidiary of Fruit of Loom, responded by closing the entire factory and firing its 1,200 workers, most of whom were women with dependent family members. Management were up front about the reasons for the closure, stating: ‘The workers will starve because they got involved in a union’.

Fortunately, the Workers’ Rights Consortium (an independent labour rights monitoring organization) stepped in, investigated the case and handed over the evidence to United Students Against Sweatshops (USAS) in the US and People & Planet in Britain. These two groups then instigated the first ever trans-Atlantic university boycott. Over 110 universities in the US, Canada, and Britain terminated millions of dollars’ worth of contracts with Fruit of the Loom as a result. In the end Fruit of the Loom backed down and became the first transnational corporation to be forced to reopen a factory due to a boycott campaign. Workers will also have full union rights and receive compensation for lost work. These are just two of the sessions which packed out a brilliant weekend. Listening to the inspiring stories, sharing experiences and making plans for the rest of the year – over a pint in the pub with new comrades – left me completely worn out, but strangely energized.

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