“Got any nachos ready?”
That’s what Joe Hendrix said to the folks at the Radio Grill, his employer’s in-house snack bar. Hendrix was on his way to punch out from his shift in the meat-cutting department at the Wal-Mart Supercenter in Jacksonville, Texas; eight months earlier, in February 2000, he’d voted yes in the first successful election for union representation at a US Wal-Mart store. For failing to pay when placing his nacho order, he was fired.
Seventy-two-year-old Sidney Smith also voted yes; he got axed for eating a pre-weighed banana on the checkout line. Such were the excuses offered by management as union supporters were systematically routed from their jobs. But this was well after the real damage had been done, when Wal-Mart announced two weeks after the Jacksonville vote that it was switching to case-ready, or pre-cut, beef and would be eliminating meat-cutting operations in 180 stores. Wal-Mart claimed its decision had nothing to do with the organizing drive, but the union filed a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board. Although the board ruled in the union’s favor, the timing of the news contained a chillingly clear message to Wal-Mart workers nationwide: This is what you can expect if you try to organize.
Wal-Mart’s legendary ferocity in such situations has, until recently, kept unions from trying to make inroads in its million-strong work force. But after more than a decade of pussyfooting, the United Food and Commercial Workers union and the Teamsters are gearing up to take on Wal-Mart Stores, Inc., with the former taking the retail stores and the latter handling 100-plus distribution centers. For the UFCW, this undertaking is less the result of newfound militancy than it is about mere survival. Seventy percent of the union’s 1.4 million members work for national groceries like Kroger and Safeway, as well as smaller, regional chains. With a strong presence in the top 100, mostly urban, markets, the big chains can hold steady in the face of Wal-Mart encroachment. The regional chains, however, are getting walloped. And with Wal-Mart circling on the fringes of larger markets, its lower wages and benefits will likely erode those enjoyed by UFCW members.
In its forty-year reign Wal-Mart has amassed a jaw-dropping trophy rack of titles–“world’s largest retailer,” “world’s largest private employer” and the recently acquired “world’s largest corporation,” edging out ExxonMobil for the top spot in this year’s Fortune 500. The chain accounts for a staggering 6.4 percent of the nation’s retail sales and, as reported in The Economist, 7-8 percent of US consumer spending (excluding cars and “white goods” like refrigerators, washers and dryers). With KMart, until recently its closest rival, now in bankruptcy, the path is clear to ever greater domination.
The only Wal-Mart store to unionize successfully was in Ontario, Canada, abetted in no small measure by the province’s once-progressive labor laws. But the fledgling union was broken by the company’s flat-out refusal to recognize the contract. While a climber at Mount Everest base camp can point to the many individuals who have summited and lived, a Wal-Mart worker trying to join a union knows no such consolation. Two unions, neither a paragon of union democracy or member mobilization, face an employer that has been growing by 15 percent each year, recession and all: In the context of a labor movement that has not been weaker since the 1920s, with a legal system seemingly rigged against it, this is an Everest ascent with no Sherpas in sight.