This week marks the kickoff of another round of strikes against Walmart by its employees. Unlike last year’s Black Friday strikes, organizers have promised that this round of protests will last for a much longer period of time. Though the number of participants in this strike is fairly small it has the potential to cause a course change in the way the company does business.
There are many reasons that Walmart's employees are disgruntled — low wages, poor benefits, and union busting behavior topping the list. It’s these behaviors that led employees to walk out of a number Walmart stores in a highly publicized action on the biggest shopping day of the year, Black Friday 2012. But that strike failed miserably. Shoppers still came in droves, as they always do, and the company kept to business as usual, continuing its abusive practices as if nothing had happened.
This latest round of strikes carries the potential to make the company heads sit up and take notice. The key difference is the length of the planned action. The Black Friday strike was a metaphorical flash in the pan, stirring up a brief media frenzy that quickly subsided when the Black Friday sales numbers came in. This round of protests, slated to last until at least June 7 when Walmart holds its annual stockholder meeting, is calculated to capture and hold media attention which will be key to gaining the attention of and spurring action on the part of the corporate leadership. Research on the effectiveness of boycotts and strikes notes that the key driver of corporate change is not a blow to the economic bottom line; the key driver is damage to the corporate reputation.
Although Walmart’s reputation is something less than spotless, the corporation is still held in high esteem in many circles, especially because of its efforts in the areas of sustainability and local foods sourcing. A prolonged and large scale protest by disgruntled workers could do enough damage to the company’s reputation to make the corporate leadership think seriously about addressing the grievances of its workforce. Additionally the protesters have taken a page out of the Civil Rights playbook by organizing a caravan called the Ride for Respect which will arrive at the corporate shareholders meeting, no doubt amid a considerable media hubbub. This added pressure will cause further discomfort for the corporation’s leaders as shareholders will be forced endure protest signs and picket lines, something few corporate shareholders wish to deal with. Given that the protests have zero chance of substantially affecting the corporation’s bottom line, the tactic of dousing Walmart’s reputation in a media shower is the best
The contrast between this set of protests and last week’s March Against Monsanto couldn’t be more stark. Though there was considerable media attention given to the worldwide action, protesters of the ag giant have few levers to push compared to the Walmart protesters. First, although there is plenty of activism against Monsanto’s products and business practices, this main protest was a one day affair. It has failed to capture and hold the media attention necessary to drive corporate change. Second, Monsanto’s corporate reputation already stinks, meaning that character can’t be used as leverage to foment change. A brief Google search reveals that the only positive headlines that include the word “Monsanto” are those in industry publications that share the same goals as the corporation. Third, short of drastic government action worldwide, there is no way to stem the flow of GMO seeds and pesticides that are Monsanto’s bread and butter. Monsanto products are everywhere and avoiding them is difficult. Though the March Against Monsanto took up a noble cause and was a daring effort, it is doomed to fail because Monsanto’s protesters have little leverage compared to Walmart’s employees.
Reputation is everything in business and the current round of protests are a well-organized and executed attempt at putting dents in Walmart’s reputation. Whether or not the company will change its tune and begin to treat its workers fairly remains to be seen, but the protester’s plan has a good chance of calling enough attention to the problems of working at Walmart to create an environment in which the corporate heads will heed the call for an improvement in working conditions and wages.