In the autumn of 2012, when Walmart first heard about the possibility of a strike on Black Friday, executives mobilized with the efficiency that had built a retail empire. Walmart has a system for almost everything: When there’s an emergency or a big event, it creates a Delta team. The one formed that September included representatives from global security, labor relations, and media relations. For Walmart, the stakes were enormous. The billions in sales typical of a Walmart Black Friday were threatened. The company’s public image, especially in big cities where its power and size were controversial, could be harmed. But more than all that: Any attempt to organize its 1 million hourly workers at its more than 4,000 stores in the U.S. was an existential danger. Operating free of unions was as essential to Walmart’s business as its rock-bottom prices.
OUR Walmart, a group of employees backed and funded by a union, was asking for more full-time jobs with higher wages and predictable schedules. Officially they called themselves the Organization United for Respect at Walmart. Walmart publicly dismissed OUR Walmart as the insignificant creation of the United Food and Commercial Workers International (UFCW) union. “This is just another union publicity stunt, and the numbers they are talking about are grossly exaggerated,” David Tovar, a spokesman, said on CBS Evening News that November.
Internally, however, Walmart considered the group enough of a threat that it hired an intelligence-gathering service from Lockheed Martin, contacted the FBI, staffed up its labor hotline, ranked stores by labor activity, and kept eyes on employees (and activists) prominent in the group. During that time, about 100 workers were actively involved in recruiting for OUR Walmart, but employees (or associates, as they’re called at Walmart) across the company were watched; the briefest conversations were reported to the “home office,” as Walmart calls its headquarters in Bentonville, Ark.
The details of Walmart’s efforts during the first year it confronted OUR Walmart are described in more than 1,000 pages of e-mails, reports, playbooks, charts, and graphs, as well as testimony from its head of labor relations at the time. The documents were produced in discovery ahead of a National Labor Relations Board hearing into OUR Walmart’s allegations of retaliation against employees who joined protests in June 2013. The testimony was given in January 2015, during the hearing. OUR Walmart, which split from the UFCW in September, provided the documents toBloomberg Businessweek after the judge concluded the case in mid-October. A decision may come in early 2016.