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.