Will Labor Take the Wal-Mart Challenge?
During the hiring process, many workers say they have had to sign forms agreeing that they would not support any effort to unionize the store, a clear violation of federal law. Lorraine Hill, who worked for Wal-Mart in Rock Springs, Wyoming, and in Oxford, Maine, says all her co-workers did this. "If you don't sign that paper you are not employed," she says. "It's not legal. It's not ethical. But if you are low income and you need the job, you abide by the rules."
Of course, these preventive measures do sometimes fail, and workers begin to organize. Wal-Mart is prepared for that, too. At any sign of union activity in a store, managers call the company's Bentonville, Arkansas, headquarters, which sends a "labor relations team" by private plane (Air Walton) to the offending store to crush the organizing effort, often the very day the call comes in.
In the United States, only one group of Wal-Mart employees has successfully organized. In February 2000 ten meatcutters in Jacksonville, Texas, voted 7 to 3 to unionize their tiny bargaining unit. Two weeks later, Wal-Mart abruptly eliminated their jobs by switching to prepackaged meat and assigning the butchers to other departments, effectively abolishing the only union shop on its North American premises. After more than three years, in June 2003, a federal labor judge ruled this move illegal and ordered Wal-Mart to restore the department and recognize the butchers' bargaining unit. Wal-Mart has appealed that decision.
Because the consequences are so minimal, Wal-Mart does not hesitate to break the law in order to stay union-free. Indeed, as the Greencastle handbook to managers notes frankly, during a union drive, "You...are expected to support the company's position.... This may mean walking a tightrope between legitimate campaigning and improper conduct." Wal-Mart has been found guilty of many violations of workers' right to organize, even firing union sympathizers. But paying fines--or in some cases, merely hanging a sign in the break room that states that the company violated workers' rights--is for Wal-Mart simply part of the cost of doing business, a small price to pay for keeping unions out. Until labor laws are reformed to make violating workers' rights a criminal offense--punishable by sending managers and CEOs to prison--running Wal-Mart campaigns based on National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) challenges may be fruitless.
Recently Wal-Mart decided that remaining union-free is a political issue, becoming 2003's number one corporate contributor to candidates, 85 percent of them Republicans. Most corporations, realizing that both Democrats and Republicans respond to business interests, give almost equally to the two parties. But Wal-Mart operates on the premise that while Democrats owe something to labor, Republicans don't--and therefore, if its donations can purchase GOP dominance, they are well spent. Wal-Mart, especially as it moves into urban areas and into union-friendly regions like California, is strategically trying to buy as many politicians and NLRB appointments as it can.
Yet despite Wal-Mart's clear focus on fighting unions, the labor movement has been slow to respond. In the late 1980s the UFCW began to realize that Wal-Mart's rapid growth and competitiveness--and rapid incursion into the grocery industry, which had been mostly unionized--posed an urgent threat to members' jobs. The first Supercenter--a twenty-four-hour Wal-Mart selling groceries in addition to the company's traditional range of goods, from ladies' underwear to lawn mowers--opened in 1988; by the end of 2003, Wal-Mart had opened 1,430 of them. Wal-Mart had historically been concentrated in "right-to-work" states in the South, but as it grew, the company encroached upon more unionized Western and Northeastern regions. Still, the union effort was halfhearted until the late 1990s, when supermarkets began losing market share to Wal-Mart and it became painfully obvious that the company threatened the UFCW's very survival--and its members' hard-won comfortable lives.
As the UFCW's humbling defeat in the California grocery strike showed, the union, after years of friendly relations with so many regional grocery stores, does not know how to conduct an antagonistic national campaign, or how to make use of nationwide publicity and public sympathy for workers. Many labor organizers, pointing to such failings, blame the UFCW for its failure to organize Wal-Mart.
But the mistakes of this particular union may almost be beside the point. While it is true--and sobering--that the UFCW devotes only 2 percent of its national budget to the Wal-Mart campaign, it is also true, as many in the labor movement are beginning to recognize, that there is no way any single union could tackle an opponent of this size and genius. As Mike Leonard, just-retired director of strategic programs for the UFCW, observes, if his union spent all its resources on organizing Wal-Mart workers, it would have to neglect the pressing needs of current members. As big as the UFCW is--at 1.4 million members, it is the nation's largest private-sector union--Wal-Mart will soon have more US employees than the UFCW has members. "It's not a fair fight," says Wade Rathke, founder and chief organizer of ACORN and Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 100, in New Orleans. No union has ever organized an entity the size of Wal-Mart, let alone one as creative and coordinated in its anti-unionism. "You have to admire this company," says Rathke. "They are very disciplined, and they've got a program." Labor doesn't, at least not yet.
Increasingly, labor leaders recognize this, and are taking the first step: admitting they have a problem. "This problem [Wal-Mart] is on the short list of any serious labor leader in the country," says Rathke. Andy Stern, president of the SEIU, has opened a dialogue on the subject on his weblog, soliciting ideas about strategy. (The SEIU is not attempting to organize Wal-Mart, nor is any union other than the UFCW, at this point.) Stern, who began the blog conversation with a picture of himself standing in front of one of Wal-Mart's thirty-nine Chinese stores, said in an interview that he sees the blog as an opportunity "to do what Howard Dean did," to stimulate interest, and then as a campaign evolves, mobilize people into action.