Will Labor Take the Wal-Mart Challenge?

Will Labor Take the Wal-Mart Challenge?

Will Labor Take the Wal-Mart Challenge?

Under the gun, unions are realizing they have to think outside the big box.


Staying union free is a full-time commitment. Unless union prevention is a goal equal to other objectives within an organization, the goal will usually not be attained. The commitment to stay union free must exist at all levels of management–from the Chairperson of the “Board” down to the front-line manager. Therefore, no one in management is immune to carrying his or her “own weight” in the union prevention effort. The entire management staff should fully comprehend and appreciate exactly what is expected of their individual efforts to meet the union free objective…. Unless each member of management is willing to spend the necessary time, effort, energy, and money, it will not be accomplished. The time involved is…365 days per year….

This admonition comes from a handbook Wal-Mart distributes to managers, and gives an idea of the passion and vision behind Wal-Mart’s unionbusting project. The $259 billion retail behemoth that has become a defining feature of the American landscape has also profoundly altered labor politics, deploying ever more creative and ruthless tactics to suppress the right to organize, while driving down wages and benefits in the retail industry and beyond.

The company is providing a business model widely imitated by other corporations, especially its competitors. To take one recent example, after striking for months, grocery workers in Southern California were forced to accept a vastly reduced health plan early this year, as supermarkets, anticipating competition from new Wal-Mart Supercenters throughout the state, refused to compromise with the union–probably the first time in history that a potential competitor who had not even entered the market yet was such a key player in a labor dispute. But the California grocers are not alone. Supermarkets all over the country have been lowering wages and decimating workers’ health plans. Management claims these cutbacks are necessary to compete with Wal-Mart, but another explanation makes at least as much sense: “Greed,” says Linda Gruen, a former Wal-Mart worker now organizing supermarket chains for the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW). “Management sees what Wal-Mart gets away with,” she says, and realizes that the way to increase profits is to do the same.

Wal-Mart, which topped the Fortune 500 this year, for the third year in a row, is not just an industry leader: It is an economy leader, the nation’s largest private employer by far, with over 1.2 million employees. That number is growing all the time, as Wal-Mart opens new stores just about every week. The average wage is around $8 an hour–and the health plan so expensive and so stingy in its coverage that many workers go without, or depend on the government to pay their medical bills. Says Susan Phillips, vice president of the UFCW and head of its working women’s department, for any private-sector union in the United States today, “anytime you go into negotiations…it’s like there’s this invisible 800-pound gorilla sitting in the room at the bargaining table.” This is reflected particularly by employers’ ebbing generosity on healthcare, but also on wages, pensions and other benefits. Journalist Bob Ortega observed in his 2000 book, In Sam We Trust, that Wal-Mart’s “way of thinking,” its relentless focus on giving the customer the lowest price, “has become the norm,” not just in retail but in all businesses. This can’t be done without crushing labor.

That’s why a consensus among labor leaders is emerging that organizing Wal-Mart workers is an urgent priority–perhaps the most urgent facing a labor movement that is losing density and influence. Asked what it will take to organize Wal-Mart, Al Zack, outgoing assistant director of strategic programs for the UFCW, points to Wal-Mart’s stated commitment to remaining “union free.” Says Zack, “When the labor movement…matches that commitment, then it will be successful.”

It would be difficult to exaggerate the magnitude of this challenge. Wal-Mart’s rhetoric is supported by diligent practice. The company screens out potential union supporters through its hiring process: In addition to excluding those with union histories, the company also administers personality tests to weed out those likely to be sympathetic to unions, and offers managers tips on how to spot such people.

The same handbook, which was given to management in a Wal-Mart distribution center in Greencastle, Indiana, urged managers to be wary of certain union-friendly types, including “the Cause-Oriented Associate,” who in high school “led demonstrations against everything from ‘red dye’ to ‘ban the bomb.’ He once took a trip to India to visit his personal ‘guru.'” Managers are also encouraged to avoid the “Overly-Qualified Associate…a Ph.D operating a grinding machine or a former accountant sweeping the floor…. This type of associate includes the associate who has formerly made substantially more money with other employers.”

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.

As the growing engagement of other unions in this discussion suggests, the UFCW cannot “stop” or change Wal-Mart alone. The task will demand the close cooperation and resources of other labor organizations. Asked what it will take to organize Wal-Mart, Ginny Coughlin of the textile union UNITE, which has recently begun organizing retail workers–but has no immediate plans to take on Wal-Mart–says, “I was just talking about this with a colleague the other day. We figured 3,000 organizers at a minimum. And all the resources, political will and leadership of probably four or five major unions.” It is not inconceivable that this could happen: Labor leaders’ recent rhetoric about greater cooperation between unions is more than talk. Several large unions are launching joint campaigns to organize low-wage workers. UNITE and HERE (the hotel and restaurant workers’ union), for example, which are now in the process of merging, are working with the SEIU to organize employees at Sodexho, the nation’s largest dining-services provider–which will involve more serious cooperation between labor organizations than we’ve seen in years. On May 12 prominent labor leaders held a meeting at SEIU headquarters to discuss the Wal-Mart problem, but partly because most people in the labor movement are preoccupied with defeating Bush, such dialogue is proceeding slowly.

Leonard, who ran the UFCW’s Wal-Mart campaign for the past four years, thinks the “entire labor movement” should devote resources to helping Wal-Mart workers build a new, AFL-CIO-affiliated union “from the ground up.” If other unions simply run a joint campaign against Wal-Mart, he argues, they are just going to drop out “as soon as they have their next big problem” affecting their own members’ immediate interests.

International cooperation could be key to any Wal-Mart organizing strategy. As Andy Stern, just back from China, points out, “Wal-Mart is second only to our current President in unpopularity around the world” [see Carl Goldstein, “Wal-Mart in China,” December 8, 2003]. Since Wal-Mart is an increasingly global company, fighting it invites potential for cross-border solidarity, especially in Germany, where many Wal-Mart workers are unionized and the company abides by a sectorwide agreement with a large retail union, and has been the target of pickets and warning strikes. In Britain some ASDA (British Wal-Mart) stores have shop stewards, but none of the workers are recognized as union members, or are covered by a collective-bargaining agreement. In Brazil Wal-Mart has had to reach agreement with unions on some workers’ rights issues, while in Japan all of the company’s workers are unionized, and Wal-Mart abides by an agreement reached with the stores’ previous owner.

Many in the US labor movement believe that Wal-Mart requires a new organizing strategy. “There is no existing organizing model that unions have effectively employed to date that would organize this company,” says Wade Rathke, who believes workers need a way to build their own institutions that is “not based on the permission of the employer.”

Joel Rogers, a longtime social-justice activist and University of Wisconsin political scientist, agrees that the traditional model of organizing–by industry, with a focus on getting a majority vote in each shop, which under the law makes all the workers in that shop part of the union–cannot work for Wal-Mart. Rogers advocates an approach he calls “open-source unionism,” in which workers could join unions even if the majority of their co-workers had not yet chosen to do so [see Richard B. Freeman and Joel Rogers, “A Proposal to American Labor,” June 24, 2002]. Membership would focus on the individual, not the firm or job; a member could still belong to the union if and when she changed jobs. “It would be a kind of ‘Wal-Mart Workers Association,'” says Rathke. This feature makes particular sense at a company like Wal-Mart, where turnover is so high. Under this model, employers could not insure that by defeating unions in elections, their workplaces would remain union-free. While these unions would lack collective-bargaining rights, members would receive advice from the union on how to protect their rights during disputes, and help in improving pay and working conditions through collective action. They would also benefit from alliances with community groups and other unions in putting pressure on their employer. Open-source unionism certainly needs re-branding, since only technologically knowledgeable geeks–most of whom are middle class–would understand that phrase, which derives from a term referring to the free exchange of software on the Internet. But it could provide a structure enabling workers’ political activism, making it much easier for workers at companies like Wal-Mart to agitate to improve their situation, in cooperation with other workers.

This model isn’t just a wonky abstraction. Though they may use different language to describe it, women and immigrants–including sweatshop workers in the United States and Latin America, and New York City taxi drivers–have been at the forefront of similar new organizational strategies. In her 2001 book Sweatshop Warriors: Immigrant Women Workers Take On the Global Factory, Miriam Ching Yoon Louie describes how garment workers have developed worker centers both to agitate for rights on the job and to develop political consciousness and become part of a larger social movement. These are, of course, much smaller-scale than a Wal-Mart Workers Association would be, but the principles–organizing without permission from employer or government, and affiliating with workers who are not in the same shop–are the same.

“It is essential that Wal-Mart workers have something like that,” says Jane Collins, a professor of rural sociology and women’s studies at the University of Wisconsin who has studied women’s labor organizations in Latin American free-trade zones. Most Wal-Mart workers are women, and women–whether in Latin America or in immigrant communities in the United States–have been at the forefront of these new forms of organizing because, says Collins, they have been excluded, or poorly served, by the traditional unions. Similarly, Wal-Mart women find themselves in their current dismal position both as a result of mainstream labor’s failure to recognize, early on, the importance of organizing low-wage retail workers and because of working-class women’s historic–and ongoing–exclusion from unionized skilled trades.

“This might not work either,” admits Rathke, of the Wal-Mart Workers Association idea. But it should be tried, he argues, because “we need a new strategy.”

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.”

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