Jumping The Ropes: Tackling Walmart Through Oral History

In this post, OHMA student Eylem Delikanli (2015) explores the potential of oral history to provide labor organizers with powerful tools for mobilizing. This article is the first in a four-part series exploring Adam Reich’s recent OHMA Workshop Series lecture, “The Summer for Respect: Student Activists, Walmart Workers, and the Future of the American Labor Movement.”

Walmart, a giant retail chain operating in twenty-three countries with 2.3 million workers, is certainly a great lab for those who are interested in understanding the mechanisms of globalization and its discontents. Sociologist Adam Reich’s project “OUR Walmart” focuses on some of these perplexities in terms of workers, wages, mobilization, and decision-making within a global retail corporation.

According to Reich, Walmart—as the biggest employer in the world—contributed to the decline in manufacturing and the substantial growth of service work in the twentieth century. This decline in industrial production adversely affected the rate of unionization, which drastically diminished over the years in the U.S. Although the statistical data shows a major increase in profits over the years in the service sector, this does not translate into wages, which suggests a wider economic inequality, but there has been almost no mobilization in response. In order to better understand the underlying obstacles against unionization in the growing service sector, Reich delves into fieldwork to pinpoint the elements preventing mobilization.

In May 2014, Adam Reich and Peter Bearman invited a team of undergraduates to become part of the “Summer for Respect” where they were dispatched to five cities to conduct oral history interviews, and worked within OUR Walmart to organize workers in each local store. Funded by the United Food and Commercial Workers’ Union, OUR Walmart is a voluntary organization of current and former Walmart employees.

Oral history plays an important part in this truly interdisciplinary project. Interviewers get a chance to connect with the workers and build a trusting relationship that could potentially benefit the organizers aiming for mobilization. Social injustice and inequality can be documented statistically, but individual narratives and in-depth analyses provide us with different and rich content to arrive at meaningful conclusions.  

Reich and Bearman were surprised to arrive at these new research questions: Here we are, focusing on the largest unjust company of the world where workers are, in some ways, happy to be part of and refrain from mobilizing in unions. Why is that? How do employees attach positive attributes to exploitative work and build social networks around it?

One way of deciphering the enthusiasm among workers would be to look at their initial motives for applying for a job at Walmart. In his presentation, Reich shared various examples: younger employees who wanted to support themselves through school, housewives who wanted to emancipate themselves from patriarchal oppression, veterans, people with disabilities, formerly incarcerated people, and many others who could otherwise have a hard time locating a job.

Here we can hear Reich sharing one of the testimonies of an employee detailing why she finds working at Wal-Mart liberating.

This testimony reveals a rather contradictory position: seeking to solve the inequalities of capitalism within one of the largest machineries that basically feeds the entire system of exploitation. Evidently, as the system cripples opportunities for a just social life, it gives false impressions leading low-wage workers to treat their companies as bastions of hope, rich with opportunity to climb the ladder of a corporate life.

It is not a coincidence that many of Walmart’s commercials are based on this portrayal of the American Dream. We hear the stories of small manufacturers or recession-hit producers surviving the conditions of capitalism through Walmart’s support and buying power. Not only do these commercials underline the good nature of an empire but also pump its messages with a blatant nationalistic tone.

But can oral historians actually act as labor organizers while conducting these interviews tackling such complex issues? I find the idea challenging and almost diverting from the initial purpose. One reason why this falls short of a realistic goal is because our work requires a pre-production period where we do research about our narrators and the larger topic of focus. We co-create interviews through long thought processes and arrive at narratives that can then help to unpack controversial individual choices.

This unique experience sometimes leads the narrators to take further action and engage in various forms of mobilization and activism. However, this requires time. Hoping to create an immediate outcome after an oral history interview seems unrealistic; nevertheless, it can be utilized to initiate a stronger mobilization from the bottom up around issues that are entangled through storytelling.

What could be potentially valuable is to analyze the interviews in terms of deconstructing the meaning of working at Walmart, what exploitation means for these low-wage workers, how they seem to address the labor issues, and in which ways they find it meaningful to change them. Therefore, these interviews would be invaluable for the organizers to frame novel ways of mobilization that would work best for specific groups within various social categories.

The dual work that the interviewers implemented in this project created tension but we know that oral history is powerful in its capacity to open a platform for imagining new frameworks for addressing social conflicts and injustice. It does so by offering new languages and a democratic discourse thanks to the agency of the narrators. Perhaps, unions and labor organizers can achieve their goals by diving deep in these interviews, and regenerating a bottom-up language through the narratives of the workers rather than imposing the ubiquitous slogans on them.

To learn more about the Summer for Respect, visit the project website.

Eylem Delikanli is an oral historian focusing on theories of trauma, post memory, and silence. Her recent research projects cover the 1980 coup d'état in Turkey and the Armenian Genocide.