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In Wake of Factory Fire, U.S. Labor Groups Attempt Blockade of Walmart Imports

A fire that killed 112 workers in a factory that supplies goods to Walmart has inspired the next wave of actions demanding justice for workers along the company’s supply chain.

Maersk-coreyseeman-555.jpg

The Maersk Carolina, the ship that protesters have been attempting to blockade. Photo by Corey Seeman.

The fight for justice at Walmart went another round on Tuesday morning, as around 75 protesters gathered in Port Newark, N.J., in an attempt to block the unloading of the container ship Maersk Carolina, whose cargo included Walmart-bound goods made in Bangladesh. While the blockade was not successful, the action demonstrated the strengthening alliance between Occupy-related groups and more labor-specific organizations.

Labor unrest now appears at every stage in Walmart’s supply chain. 

The action came less than a month after 112 workers burned to death in the Tazreen Factory in Bangladesh, which supplies clothes to Walmart. Bloomberg reported that in 2011, the retail giant had refused to cover the costs of safety improvements to Bangladeshi factories such as Tazreen. Bangladeshi authorities who researched the case just announced findings of "unpardonable negligence."

The protesters, who included participants in Occupy Wall Street as well as labor and community groups, hoped to connect Walmart’s actions abroad to its actions at home. Goods from Bangladesh are unloaded by the International Longshoreman’s Alliance, then distributed to warehouses, and finally to Walmart’s retail outlets. Labor unrest appears at every stage in this supply chain: the longshoremen are currently in contract negotiations, warehouse workers in California and Illinois went on strike this September over unsafe and unfair working conditions, and retail workers walked out on Black Friday over low wages and retaliatory tactics.

“The main purpose of this event was to highlight Walmart’s abuses throughout the supply chain,” said organizer and Occupy Wall Street member Isham Christie.

Organizers had also planned to disrupt that supply chain. Their original intent was to leaflet the employee entrance to the port and persuade the Longshoremen not to unload the Maersk Carolina.

But port police and Homeland Security agents stepped in and escorted the busses of protesters to a stretch of highway out of sight of the worker entrance. While this outcome disappointed many of those in attendance, it also proved the activists’ point.

“I think they realize the supply chain is vulnerable to economic disruption,” Christie said.

Despite the failure of the blockade, Christie noted that protesters had received many honks of support from passing truckers, and hoped that picketing near the port would give the Longshoremen an edge in contract negotiations. This was the first East Coast port action organized by Occupy Wall Street, Christie said, and it will not be the last.

A deepening alliance

The port action also bore witness to an increasingly fruitful collaboration between Occupy Wall Street and labor and community groups along issues of workers’ rights.

First, individuals within Occupy Wall Street researched the supply route from Bangladesh to the United States and put out the call to action. But that call was taken up by many organizations, including Occupy working groups like 99 Pickets as well as more established labor organizations such as ALIGN, Jobs With Justice, the Retail Action Project, the New Jersey State Industrial Union Council, and the Remember the Triangle Fire Coalition, which sponsored busses from New York City.

Maritza Silva-Farrell, Senior Organizer at ALIGN, has been working to keep Walmart stores out of New York City since 2011. She said the collaboration between Occupy and groups like hers was building momentum around workers’ rights. “We want to build a movement, a real movement, and this is it,” she said.

From the workplace occupation of Hot and Crusty to the Black Friday strikes at Walmart, the fall of 2012 has seen an increased focus on labor militancy within Occupy.

She praised 99 Pickets, an Occupy working group formed after May Day out of conversations between other labor-related groups such as Immigrant Worker Justice and the Labor Outreach Council. The group works to unite workers and struggles around New York City by organizing, publicizing, and attending picket lines.

Exactly a week before the port action, the two groups helped organize one such action outside a talk on corporate responsibility by Walmart CEO Mike Duke. According to Silva-Farrell, the protest succeeded in influencing some of the questions Duke received at the event.

99 Pickets member Michelle Flores said that worker justice has always been part of Occupy Wall Street’s larger agenda. Many people, she said, had come to OWS from various labor struggles. “Occupy Wall Street built on that momentum and I think that momentum came out of it,” she said.

From the workplace occupation of Hot and Crusty to the Black Friday strikes at Walmart, the fall of 2012 has seen an increased focus on labor militancy within Occupy. Tuesday’s port action, however small, helped build that wave.

As for the Maersk Carolina, its role in the fight for justice at Walmart isn’t over yet. Reports are already emerging that protesters will target the ship again when it docks on Thursday in Charleston, S.C.


Olivia Rosane wrote this article for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas and practical actions. She is a writer and activist living in New York City. In addition to covering Occupy Wall Street for YES! last fall, she has written for Dissent’s blog and The State. Follow her on Twitter @orosane.

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