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USA: 'Union-Free' Wal-Mart

by Harry KelberLaborTalk
March 12th, 2001

When 66 international union presidents and AFL-CIO President John Sweeney meet in Washington on March 26 to discuss the organizing challenges they face, they could well direct their attention to Wal-Mart, the world's largest retailer and the nation's biggest employer.

There are about 3,000 Wal-Mart stores that employ 950,000 people and not one has been unionized. The best the 1.4 million-member United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) has been able to achieve is to organize a delicatessen unit of 11 Wal-Mart workers last year in a store in Jacksonville. Tex., where 10 of them no longer work.

In many ways, Wal-Mart employees are ripe for unionization. They earn from $2 to $3 an hour less than workers in union stores. Their benefits are inferior. They pay more in health insurance than union members. They get paid for only 28 hours, their standard workweek, and there's very little overtime. Workers have plenty of grievances, but they risk getting fired if they complain.

Wal-Mart goes to extraordinary lengths to indoctrinate its employees against unions. Newly-hired people are required to watch a video that explains why the company opposes and won't tolerate unions.

In their first year on the job, employees must endure eight anti-union videos in the presence of their supervisor and a small group of co-workers, according to Al Zack, UFCW's assistant director of strategic programs.

The company moves swiftly at the first sign of an organizing effort. It doesn't hesitate to fire ringleaders and it doesn't seem to care that it may be committing unfair labor practices. The UFCW has already filed some 250 charges against Wal-Mart with the National Labor Relations Board, but the company persists in its brazenly anti-union behavior.

At the same time, Wal-Mart retains some of the paternalistic practices of founder Sam Walton, who died in 1992. Employees are called associates and are given stock options and profit-sharing benefits. To thwart an organizing drive, the company may hand out wage increases and promise to pay more attention to workers' complaints.

Three years ago, when many Wal-Mart stores began to sell a full line of groceries, the UFCW with a huge proportion of it members employed in the retail food industry became deeply concerned. With its lower prices and cheaper labor costs, Wal-Mart is driving unionized stores out of business and making it more difficult to win better contracts. Organizing Wal-Mart is imperative, but how and by whom?

Each of the 66 AFL-CIO unions can point to companies that resist unionism just as fiercely as Wal-Mart. If they don't come up with creative organizing strategies, they can't possibly reach their announced goal of 700,000 new members this year (already scaled down from one million.)

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