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
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.)