How appropriate, this May Day, that Human Rights Watch has just released “Discounting Human Rights: Wal-Mart’s Violation of US Workers’ Right to Freedom of Association,” a detailed account of how Wal-Mart systematically violates its workers’ right to organize. The right to freedom of association is, as the group notes, “well established under international human rights law,” and the United States should be enforcing it. Our government has not been fulfilling this basic task, and as a result, our nation’s largest private employer has also become a rogue union buster, whose practices are starkly at odds with any notion of workplace democracy.
Between 2004 and early 2007, Human Rights interviewed forty-one current and former Wal-Mart workers and managers (some of whom supported unionization, some were opposed and some ambivalent). The group also interviewed labor lawyers and union organizers, and analyzed the cases against Wal-Mart charging the company with violating US labor laws. Even adjusted for its size, the human rights group found, Wal-Mart stood out for the number of such violations. Between January 2000 and July 2005, fifteen National Labor Relations Board rulings against Wal-Mart are still standing and have not been overruled — that is three times as many such rulings as Albertson’s, Costco, Kmart, Kroger, Home Depot, Sears and Target combined. Put together, those companies have a workforce 26 percent bigger than Wal-Mart’s.
The rights group found that the company begins to indoctrinate and intimidate workers with an anti-union message almost from the moment they are hired. In violation of international standards — but not in violation of US law — workers are encouraged to attend “captive audience” meetings in which they hear all the bad news about unions — with little or no opportunity for union supporters and organizers to respond. In violation even of weak US laws, Wal-Mart spies on union supporters extensively, has fired workers for union organizing, and has told workers they would lose benefits if they supported a union.
The Human Rights Watch report correctly points out that the problems at Wal-Mart neither begin nor end with Wal-Mart. The retailer is, the authors explain, “a case study in what is wrong with US labor laws.” Our laws don’t meet international standards, and Wal-Mart doesn’t even follow our pathetically minimal laws. US penalties are so light they provide no deterrent even for chronic violators. Human Rights Watch suggests some solid policy solutions. The report’s authors don’t suggest that Lee Scott and the rest of Wal-Mart’s management spend some time breaking rocks on a Southern chain gang. That’s what I’d call a proper deterrent! But they do, quite sensibly, rather than simply decrying the bad practices and calling on Wal-Mart to change its ways, suggest that Congress pass the Employee Free Choice Act, which would increase penalties for breaking labor laws and restore some democracy to the union election process by requiring employers to recognize a union if a majority of workers sign union cards. That bill passed the House in March, and is now under consideration in the Senate.