Josh Eidelson of The Nation Wins December Sidney for Coverage of Historic Walmart Strike
Josh Eidelson of The Nation wins the December Sidney Award for his coverage of the historic Black Friday strike at Walmart and the ongoing strike wave moving through Walmart’s supply chain.
Drawing on historical perspective, on-the-ground reporting, and interviews with organizers, labor leaders, academics, and workers, Eidelson-a former organizer himself-broke news and shaped the debate about why workers at the nation’s largest and most notorious anti-union retailer are striking, what the strikes mean, and what could happen next.
Among other stories, Eidelson was the first to report the arrest of an ex-Walmart worker organizing at his store and a scripted mandatory meeting held by Walmart managers to discourage striking, as well as the first to share photos showing Walmart goods at the site of the tragic factory fire in Bangladesh. Perhaps most important, Eidelson has brought voices of Walmart workers to the center of the conversation.
Over the Black Friday weekend, Eidelson liveblogged the protests for over 20 hours.
“Eidelson owned the Black Friday beat,” said Sidney judge Lindsay Beyerstein, “No one else could match the depth, breadth, and timeliness of his reporting.”
Eidelson is a contributing writer at The Nation, Salon, and In These Times. After receiving his MA in Political Science from Yale, he spent five years as a service sector union organizer in California and Pennsylvania.
- There have been walkouts at Walmart in the past, what made the Black Friday strike historic?
The Black Friday strike was the largest-ever US work stoppage against Walmart, the country’s largest private employer and the dominant player in our economy. It came seven weeks after the first-ever coordinated strikes at multiple US Walmart stores. And it’s part of an ongoing strike wave moving through Walmart’s US supply chain, which has included guest workers at a Louisiana seafood supplier and subcontracted workers at Walmart distribution centers in California and Illinois.
- Tell us more about OUR Walmart. Who are they? What is their overall strategy?
OUR Walmart is the organization of Walmart retail employees behind the Black Friday strikes. It’s closely tied to the United Food & Commercial Workers union, which has mounted a series of unsuccessful Walmart unionization efforts in recent decades. OUR Walmart doesn’t identify as a union, and it hasn’t demanded union recognition. But its members have been organizing for improvements in pay, benefits, and staffing - and most recently, for an end to alleged retaliation for their activism. They claim thousands of current and former Walmart employees as members. OUR Walmart is using worker actions in individual stores, nationally-coordinated work stoppages, and partnerships with community and consumer allies to try to transform Walmart’s business model.
- How do the tactics used in the Black Friday campaign differ from the traditional approach to organizing?
OUR Walmart is one of a slew of new labor movement organizations around the country that, while they’re organizing and mobilizing workers and have backing from unions, don’t identify as unions under the law. In contrast to some past efforts at Walmart, they’ve focused their demands on working conditions and the freedom to speak up without being retaliated against, without calling for unionization. (It’s reasonable to expect that, if they ever reach the size and clout to actually force Walmart to agree to a fair unionization process-a daunting task-they’ll start calling for one.) This campaign has also been creative about using social media and mass phone calling to identify leaders and engage workers in new regions.
But the most significant contrast with the previous decade’s efforts is that the workers are front and center: Rather than just flying a coalition of the willing workers to hold public events in DC, this campaign has pushed brave workers to organize their immediate coworkers and confront their local managers. Such local skirmishes over the past year, along with work stoppages elsewhere in Walmart’s supply chain, laid the groundwork for the historic retail strikes.
- How many workers walked off the job on Black Friday, and how many participated on their own time?
Organizers have counted over 500 Walmart retail workers who walked off at some point in the nine days leading up to and including Black Friday; 400-some were on strike on that Thursday or Friday. So November’s retail strikes were about three times as big as October’s, but still turned out less than one out of every thousand Walmart employees in the country.
- How did OUR Walmart define success for the Black Friday action, and did they meet their goal?
In interviews, organizers set modest expectations: Making the day memorable for Walmart management, engaging more Walmart workers in the campaign, building and demonstrating community support for workers, and getting the media and the public talking about Walmart working conditions. All of that happened. The most concrete commitment the organizers made ahead of time was that there would be 1,000 protests around the country (this was often misquoted by reporters as “1,000 strikes”), and they say they surpassed that goal. In my interviews with striking workers, some said they were disappointed that some of their coworkers had backed out at the last minute, which they chalked up to a justified fear of retaliation. But the same strikers were hopeful that they’d be able to get more of their peers out for their next strike, which they expect will happen soon.
- What’s next for OUR Walmart?
For December, organizers have said their priorities are to push back against alleged retaliation, and to reach out to holiday shoppers. Workers have told me they’re itching for more strikes. Among the other efforts to watch over the next couple of months: the global union federation UNI has promised coordinated international action by Walmart workers to support the US organizing. And guest workers who led the June strike at the Walmart supplier CJ’s Seafood have been organizing other guest workers to take on Walmart. To succeed in the long term, I think the current campaign will have to double down on two of its strengths: organizing throughout Walmart’s supply chain, and fostering shopfloor organizing and leadership development in individual stores. I’ll have more on this in next week’s issue of The Nation.