Will Labor Take the Wal-Mart Challenge?
Most people agree that any serious approach to forcing Wal-Mart to the bargaining table must eventually threaten the company's profits. Labor organizers used to think they could do this by asking the public not to shop at Wal-Mart, but now most concede that's impossible, given the retailer's low prices. Their own members shop at Wal-Mart, making at least 30 percent of union credit-card purchases at the retail giant. Even activists thinking seriously about how to oppose the retailer keep finding themselves in its parking lots. "I love that damn store," says Rathke, who recalls being a loyal customer when he lived in Arkansas and needed the discounts. "They had me. I wasn't making 2 cents to put together." Now he lives in New Orleans, and admits, "Damned if I don't go down to Sam's for a new tire! They do have something that works. You can't just convince people they're evil." Indeed, many rural and working-class women view Wal-Mart as an ally, an oasis of low prices in an unfriendly world. In her chart-topping paean to country pride, "Redneck Woman," Gretchen Wilson sums it up irresistibly: "Victoria's Secret, well their stuff's real nice/But I can buy the same damn thing on a Wal-Mart shelf half price/And still look sexy, just as sexy as those models on TV/No, I don't need no designer tag to make my man want me." The question of how to threaten profits, given such intense consumer loyalty, is one of many that the labor movement's current dialogue must engage.
While simply telling people not to shop at Wal-Mart may be a losing battle, fighting Wal-Mart and companies like it will require convincing the public that discounts are no substitute for economic justice. Says Beth Shulman, author of The Betrayal of Work: How Low-Wage Jobs Fail 30 Million Americans and Their Families, "We need to talk about cost in a larger way. It is not just about saving $25, but the cost to the lives of workers and their families, and to society." That conversation has already begun in Georgia, Washington State and elsewhere, where studies have shown that Wal-Mart employees depend on public assistance far more than do workers employed by other large companies. April Hotchkiss, who makes $8.33 an hour as a clerk in a Pueblo, Colorado, Supercenter, has had her healthcare costs paid for by the state's program for the indigent. She dreams of the day she will no longer have to shop or work at Wal-Mart. "Whenever I'm able to quit this place, and find something better, I'm never going to set foot in another [Wal-Mart] again," she says. "I don't care how low the prices are--of course the prices are low, because they don't pay anybody worth crap!"
Ultimately, for this campaign to succeed, the entire progressive movement--not just labor--will have to make the unionization of Wal-Mart a priority. Pointing to the recent victory in Inglewood (a Los Angeles suburb where voters rejected a move by Wal-Mart to exempt itself from local zoning rules and erect a massive Supercenter) and the momentum of similar battles in Chicago and elsewhere, Rathke says that when it comes to fighting Wal-Mart, "there is more traction in the community than on the labor side." Andy Stern agrees, envisioning his blog conversation as the beginning of a movement-wide campaign by progressives to bring pressure on Wal-Mart. "The campaign needs to begin not as a labor campaign," says Stern, pointing out that community organizations "are more used to sustaining people around issues for long periods." Similarly, while Stern thinks there is "clearly an opportunity to create a Wal-Mart Workers Association," given that so many employees are unhappy with their working conditions, he thinks it might be a job for ACORN and other community organizations, since "it is not a traditional union model."
But Stern believes the labor movement should put resources behind a central organization that could serve as a resource for--and help coordinate--the many constituencies (workers, environmentalists, feminists, anti-sprawl advocates, churches, small-business owners) opposing Wal-Mart. At present, these groups work largely in isolation. Says Rathke, "There's no place to call and ask, 'How do you bring the ghostbusters in?'"
Labor activists talk a lot about involving the "community," which all agree is an important component in the struggle to unionize Wal-Mart. Yet one advantage Wal-Mart has in this regard is that with 70 percent of its stores located outside of metropolitan areas, and "Main Street" dying everywhere, it's doing business in many places where there isn't much of a community. In urban areas like Inglewood, and in some small towns, black churches, small-business associations and other institutions have been able to facilitate a discussion about whether Wal-Mart serves or thwarts the common good. But in many of the rural and exurban counties and townships where the retailer has traditionally operated, there has been no basis for such a debate: only isolated families struggling to get by, grateful to be able to load up their cars with cheap groceries from Wal-Mart. As is often the case, rhetoric about "community" can blind us to the crucial problem of its absence. On the other hand, wherever there is a thriving civic culture, that culture is an essential ally in the fight against Wal-Mart. In Vermont, for example, controversy over proposed superstores recently inspired the National Trust for Historic Preservation to declare the entire state "endangered" by the retailer.
It's encouraging that labor leaders are talking about this problem and entertaining so many new approaches. Yet as Mike Leonard cautions, in the labor movement, "it's a pretty rare day when we go beyond talking about a new idea, and that's part of the problem." And many workers are not optimistic now. Linda Gruen, who tried for several years to organize her Wal-Mart co-workers, is "not sure we will ever unionize Wal-Mart." April Hotchkiss, who still works at Wal-Mart and is trying to organize her co-workers, shares Gruen's view at times. "It is like parting the Red Sea," she says. "Sometimes I think it ain't going to happen. It is one of the hardest things I've ever tried to accomplish. I'd probably be better off trying to run the New York City Marathon."