Scaling online to field networks at OURWalmart

Working with The Engage Network has helped us both deepen and scale our online to field organizing.  Engage has given us insight on how we can better ground our organizing with a system and approach that multiplies that to reach scale. – Andrea Dehlendorf

By the People, For the People

In June, 2011, a group of leaders went to the headquarters of Walmart in Bentonville and stood up for respect and justice in their jobs and communities and launched Organization United for Respect at Walmart, OURWalmart. In just 18 months, OURWalmart (OW) has grown to become a powerful organization that combines the best in field organizing with an innovative online to offline network.

In 2012 the Engage Network partnered with OW to help identify best practices within the organization which would enable OW to lay a positive foundation which would support the organization’s rapid expansion and help them to grow effectively at scale.

OURWalmart gives Walmart workers and former workers the opportunity to join together in a united front to address the challenges they face on a daily basis as Walmart employees. These challenges include:

  • Average wages of $8.81 an hour — an amount which leaves many Associates struggling to make ends meet
  • Irregular and unpredictable schedules – creating real challenges to parenting,  having second jobs, or attending classes.
  • Heavily understaffed departments, so that many Associates are burdened with an unfair workload
  • An unhealthy management culture that places high levels of stress and pressure on Walmart Associates
  • The inability for Associates to get full-time work, making it more difficult to get benefits and/or a living wage
  • The majority of Associates are not offered affordable healthcare

Going up against the behemoth that is Walmart, is no easy job. Walmart is the second largest US employer after the US government, employing more than 1.4 million Americans in over 4200 stores — 1% of the US working population. The average Walmart worker earns is $8.81 an hour, substantially less than the $11.75 an hour average that Walmart claims.* This means that even those who are lucky enough to be given full-time hours (many workers are denied full-time work) have an annual salary that is far below the poverty line. In recent years many workers have had their hours cut and benefits reduced as Walmart seeks to maximize its profits. Labor has attempted to unionize individual Walmart stores with little success – Walmart closed down a store in Canada that had voted in favor of unionization and Walmart contracted out a their butcher department, when they voted to unionize in Texas. *This claim is for Full Time, vs $8.81, which includes part time.

A New Approach to Organizing

The OURWalmart effort led by workers is supported by a diverse alliance of organizations.  These include community, faith, and mulitple labor organizations including United Food and Commercial Workers, online networks like Color of Change, environmental groups like Sierra Club and independent networks like Occupy Wall Street.  This innovative cross-organization, distributive and collaborative model has been designed by workers across the country in partnership with experienced organizers.  Dan Schlademan, who built a successful organizing effort by training members to be leaders in the Justice for Janitors fight, explained that the strategy is to support Walmart workers to become leaders and to have those leaders build a broad membership network across the US. The key idea behind OURWalmart’s success has been to combine deep field organizing in a number of areas with an online network of volunteers who can build in areas where field organizing can’t reach. The larger the network grows, the stronger OURWalmart becomes. The stronger the network grows, the more power they wield.

Black Friday Protests

On Black Friday 2012, the day after Thanksgiving, (traditionally the busiest day of the year for retailers) OW Associates defied one of America’s most powerful corporations by holding successful protests in over 1,200 Walmart stores, with over 500 OW Workers taking part in strikes, and supported by about 30,000 everyday Americans around the country. Workers went on strike to call for an end to the attempts by Walmart to silence and retaliate against workers who speak out for better working conditions.

Building leadership

The national OURWalmart leadership team is building deep hubs in the field and broadening their membership engagement online. Some of their best practices include: 1. Build a community of shared values. Walmart workers share a common bond and experience as Walmart employees that helps them connect with one another. OW organizers build on this and deepen member connections and ties through in-person leadership meetings. 2.  Share power:  The ownership of decisions occurs at as many levels as possible, led by core leaders.  The national leadership team combines online and offline leaders. 3.  To go big, go small:  Although the network is scaling, it still has strong local and online hubs.  In the field team, this occurs at the store level. In the online team, private facebook groups and national text message and email coordination keep the network in touch with each other in between frequent trainings and joint actions.

During 2012 The Engage Network has worked closely with OURWalmart to help the organization grow their best practices, develop and expand upon their strong leadership culture and training and to effectively help the organization scale their operations both online and offline.

The OURWalmart team shows a depth of heart and natural organizing ability that is truly exceptional. Again and again they choose to stand together against enormous odds. Through their powerful leadership they have seeded a strong national network that is poised to make a historic difference. Together, they are changing the face of labor and corporate organizing. — Marianne Manilov