Our Walmart, the union-funded effort to improve working conditions at the world's largest private employer, will be taking a new approach to campaigning after its union backer cut funding and laid off its two most senior organizers.
The four-year old campaign made plenty of headlines as it organized protests at Walmart stores and corporate offices, including actions targeting Black Friday, the busiest day of the retail year. Its members celebrated a small victory in April when the company said it would raise its minimum wage to $10 an hour by next February.
But its main financial backer, the United Food and Commercial Workers union, has decided to change course. Just weeks before the Walmart shareholders meeting in June, it fired two top leaders of Our Walmart, Dan Schlademan and Andrea Dehlendorf, according to multiple sources outside the union. The two, who did not respond to requests for comment, had been instrumental in leading marches, Black Friday actions, and sit-ins at Walmart stores.
In April, the Washington Post reported the union had cut funding for Our Walmart and its sister campaign, Making Change at Walmart, by more than 50%.
The union appears to be shifting its focus to media campaigning, rather than organizing actions on the ground. In June it hired Jessica Levin, formerly of progressive media watchdog Media Matters for America, to run communications for the union and coordinate a new media effort for the Our Walmart campaign. Media Matters rose to prominence as a digitally savvy operator among progressive activist organisations, criticizing "conservative misinformation" in the media.
With Levin on board, the Our Walmart campaign will take a more media-focused approach, advertising on TV, online, and in print.
"With Walmart recently making major communications and management changes, our campaign needed to move in a more aggressive direction," said Our Walmart in a statement via the UFCW. "This next phase, which includes a very aggressive strategy like these ads, is just the beginning."
The first full-page print ad released by the UFCW in this new period of campaigning is set to be published this week in USA Today. "1,117,514 years since humans evolved to walk the earth on two legs," it reads. "The same number of years it would take for the average Walmart employee to earn what the Waltons made last year."
Notably, the phrase "Our Walmart" does not appear anywhere on the ad, although it does include a UFCW logo. A person familiar with the campaign said this was done to ensure there would be "no confusion as to where the message was coming from."
Our Walmart said the changes will not water down its commitment to on-the-ground organizing. "Working with employees on the ground to bring attention to working conditions at Walmart will always be a part of this campaign," it said. "The workers are the most important voice in the conversation about the responsibility Walmart has to improve the lives of employees and their families."
The shift in focus comes after the Our Walmart campaign appears to have gained a significant level of awareness within the company. "Walmart's listening," said Tiffany Beroid, an active Our Walmart member and former Walmart worker who attended the recent protest at the company's annual shareholder meeting.
They're listening so closely, she said, that Rob Walton, son of founder Sam Walton and company chairperson since 1992, did an Our Walmart chant from the stage of the shareholders' meeting.
"He said, 'Whose Walmart?' and we shouted back, 'Our Walmart,'" said Beroid. "That's always been our chant. They have their own chant within the company. He was acknowledging our presence."
Walmart spokesman Randy Hargrove said the ad campaign is "nothing new."
"Unions have been investing member dues in PR campaigns for years," he said, "while Walmart is investing $1 billion this year in higher wages, improved scheduling, and enhanced education and training for our associates."
Our Walmart has been one of the more visible players in the "alt-labor" movement, where non-traditional organizing campaigns attempt to mobilize workers in industries where the union movement has been long in exile. The UFCW's changing approach to the campaign is being closely watched by others in the labor movement.
"What we understand is that UFCW has expanded their fight to include all retail workers," said Mary Kay Henry, head of the Service Employees International Union, which backs the Fight For 15 movement to raise fast-food wages.
When asked if the SEIU would consider assisting Our Walmart financially, Henry said the union would offer support in other ways. "We want to help by sharing our digital communications work, help with our members who have gotten to do training with their co-workers. We've been sharing educational materials," she said. "We want to help in whatever way we can to bring union and non-union workers into this fight."
Updated with comment from Walmart.
Cora Lewis is a reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in New York.
Contact Cora Lewis at email@example.com.
Got a confidential tip? Submit it here.