Former Walmart worker Denise Barlage has fasted on the steps of the Los Angeles City Hall, outside Alice Walton's Park Avenue apartment, and, most recently, on the sidewalk of Hillary Clinton's Brooklyn presidential campaign headquarters.
Standing in the brisk November air with six other fasters in matching lime green scarves, Barlage said she believes the LA City Hall hunger strike contributed to public pressure that led to the passage of a $15 minimum wage in the city and county. She's hopeful similar pressure might lead Clinton to call for a $15 federal minimum wage, rather than the $12 she's so far supported. A second worker agreed, also commenting on the smell of fresh coffee wafting from a passerby's cup.
In an under-the-radar PR scuffle, Barlage and the other workers (all subsisting on water, broth, and juice) successfully ambushed the Clinton campaign in Brooklyn the week before Black Friday, ultimately prompting a sidewalk confrontation with her labor outreach director, Nikki Budzinski. "I hear you. We hear you," the staffer said repeatedly as she defended Clinton's stance on the minimum wage to the circle of workers, one of whom rocked her 19-month-old daughter.
The skirmish prompted an informal apology from senior Clinton policy adviser Ann O'Leary, who posted on Facebook that she was sorry to miss the group’s visit. “Thanks for making your voices heard,” she wrote.
Lately, though, Clinton's labor-relations headlines have mainly been a procession of high-level union endorsements — and therein lies the tension. Unions are used to throwing their weight around politically, contributing financially to campaigns from their now-diminished coffers and hitting the streets to get voters to the polls. But some in the rank-and-file have made it known they would prefer labor leaders to take a harder line: Some would like to see more support for Vermont Senator and presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, and others would prefer different tactics entirely — such as hunger strikes, walkouts, and marches — to further the working-class agenda.
In the past month or so, Clinton has secured endorsements from the 500,000-member Laborers International Union of North America (LiUNA) and the 130,000-member ironworkers' union. On Thursday a 3-million-member coalition of building trades unions, including the International Brotherhood of Electrical workers, endorsed her.
Most significant of all, though, may be the November endorsement of the 2-million-strong Service Employees International Union (SEIU), which backs the Fight for 15 campaign to raise the minimum wage. Though Clinton has told the movement she “wants to be [their] champion,” she has stopped short of endorsing a $15 federal minimum, unlike Bernie Sanders, who has given it his public backing.
Last month Labor for Bernie, an organization made up of union members from across different industries, released a statement to voice official dissent over endorsements of Clinton. The SEIU's endorsement, it said, was a continuation of labor's “failed strategy of engaging in purely ‘transactional’ politics with corporate liberals." And in organized fashion, the 11,000-member SEIU local 1984 chapter in New Hampshire broke with the union leadership's endorsement to back Sanders.
Earlier this year, the 200,000-member American Postal Workers Union and 185,000-member National Nurses United union also endorsed Sanders, a long-time labor ally, over Clinton, who is the clear frontrunner. Clinton has previously received backing from the National Education Association, the American Federation of Teachers, and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME).
For their part, the Black Friday Walmart fasters were not unionized or even union-affiliated — they were members of Our Walmart, an independent group pushing for better wages, hours, and working conditions at the world's largest private employer.
Our Walmart (a backronym for Organization United for Respect at Walmart) split from its original union backer, the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW), in September and has since held actions on its own, including the 15-day fast by workers and supporters leading up to Black. Beginning in the small hours of Black Friday, the group picketed stores in New York, Washington, D.C., Chicago, and elsewhere.
In interviews since the split, Our Walmart members have said they are firmly aligned with other "alt-labor" organizations, such as the SEIU-backed Fight for 15, whose methods and strategies differ from traditional unions'. "They show up for us, and we show up for them," said Barlage, one of the hunger strikers.
Like the Fight for 15, which stages protests and marches, and anti-police brutality movement Black Lives Matter — which has interrupted campaign events, held its own heated, unorthodox meeting with the Clinton campaign, and shown major support for minimum wage protests — Our Walmart's tactics skew confrontational. Unlike major unions, the group is not part of the political establishment, and is not beholden to dues-paying members or powerful patrons (Our Walmart supports itself financially with grants and worker donations). Our Walmart, and activist organizations like it, have little to lose and plenty to gain from confrontations with the progressive establishment.
For the moment, none have officially endorsed a candidate, and Black Lives Matter has expressly said it will not do so, arguing its strength comes instead from on-the-ground mobilization of its membership and disruption of business-as-usual politics.
"Black Lives Matter as a network will not, does not, has not, ain't going to endorse any candidates," Alicia Garza, one of the movement's founders, told the Associated Press. "Sometimes you have to put a wrench in the gears to get people to listen."
"Our campaign to change Walmart can't just be about one day," said Dave Young, the UFCW's Walmart Campaign Director.
While announcing the UFCW’s plans for Black Friday and beyond, Young declined to discuss the re-launch of the independent Our Walmart group, instead focusing on the union’s goal of supporting 1,000 local food drives in cities with Walmart stores, to collect goods for workers and their families.
"An estimated hundreds of thousands of hard-working Walmart employees will be forced to rely on assistance from food banks and food stamps this holiday season," said Jess Levin, communications director for the UFCW's Walmart campaign. "We want to help make a real difference for these workers by hosting food drives.”
Young said that the UFCW and Our Walmart's efforts have already had an effect on the retailer, citing changes in Black Friday scheduling and a letter from the company's lawyer regarding labor-related activity in or near the stores.
"To be very frank, Walmart has responded to our actions by starting deals earlier and online," he said. "In response to our strategy memo, Walmart sent a letter directly to us highlighting past injunctions and threatening further actions."
Regarding the fasting workers, Walmart spokesperson Brian Nick said the company is "proud” of the wages and benefits it offers. “Our average full-time hourly associate earns more than $13 an hour in addition to the opportunity for quarterly cash bonuses, matching 401k and healthcare benefits,” he said. “Walmart is investing $2.7 billion over this year and next in wages, education and training for our associates because we know they make the difference.”
Days before Black Friday, the UFCW announced its own holiday-season actions, including a five week Walmart-targeted campaign throughout December, with both local events in communities with Walmart stores and "air support" from TV ads.
"We want to take the best of both labor and community organizations," Our Walmart organizer Dan Schladelman said when the splinter group re-launched itself in September. "To develop into a single organization that will be transformative."
Cora Lewis is a business reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in New York. Lewis reports on labor.
Contact Cora Lewis at email@example.com.
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