With revenues of roughly $375 billion and 1.4 million workers at more than 4,000 stores in the United States alone, Wal-Mart is the largest company in the world. Yet for the last five years, the United Food and Commercial Workers — the largest union in the country representing retail workers — has largely eschewed organizing drives aimed at Wal-Mart workers.
After years of unsuccessfully seeking a toehold within the retail chain, the union simply decided that under current labor laws trying to organize workers in the face of fierce corporate resistance was futile.
“Workers at Wal-Mart have wanted to organize for a long, long time and have made efforts in various places,” says Doug Mork, organizing director for UFCW Local 789. “But there just hasn’t been a real possibility. If their employers have been committed enough and capitalized enough to fight them to the mat on it, workers simply haven’t had the opportunity to organize under existing labor law.”
But the UFCW now vows that its capitulation to Wal-Mart is over. The union has started organizing campaigns in 17 states, including Minnesota, targeting more than 100 stores. The impetus for the organizing drive: the new administration in the White House and the possibility of passing the Employee Free Choice Act. Under the proposed legislation, workers would join a union after more than half of the workers sign a card indicating support. Under present law, an election must be held to determine whether a majority of workers are in favor of joining the union.
President Obama has consistently voiced support for the Employee Free Choice Act. UFCW organizers are utilizing cards with a picture of the popular president to entice workers to sign off on unionization. The cards include a 2007 quote from Obama specifically calling out Wal-Mart. “I don’t mind standing up for workers and letting Wal-Mart know they need to pay a decent wage and let folks organize,” he said at the time.
But the proposed legislation has floundered as the economy has tanked. President Obama has not made it a top legislative priority, and some former supporters, including Sens. Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark) and Arlen Specter (D-Penn.), have turned against it.
UFCW’s Wal-Mart campaign is part of an effort by organized labor to build support for the Employee Free Choice Act and apply pressure to Congress.
“Every union has been lifting up clear examples of where current law has not worked well,” says Mork. “Wal-Mart is clearly one of the examples for the UFCW. There’s adequate evidence that all sorts of people can look and say, ‘Yes, workers at Wal-mart wanted to organize.’ There’s been clear energy and interest in the past, and they’ve been able to completely shut it down.”
In the Twin Cities, UFCW has had discussions with workers at nine stores, according to Mork. But it’s difficult to say whether the union is gaining significant traction. Mork is reluctant to specify exactly how many workers have so far signed cards indicating support for joining the union.
“I don’t want to give Wal-Mart any information that they don’t have in terms of what’s happening here,” he says. “We’re certainly not a majority anywhere yet. But we’ve got stores where significant numbers of folks have signed.”
Wal-Mart seems unfazed by the campaign. “We have noticed that the UFCW has been working harder in its attempt to get Wal-Mart associates to sign union cards,” says Daphne Moore, a spokesperson for the company. “We don’t think our associates have any reason to be more interested than before.”
However, the retailer is notorious for the lengths it will go to keep organized labor out of its stores. When meat cutters at a Texas store voted to unionize a decade ago, the company responded by eliminating meat cutters from 180 stores in six states. After workers at a Wal-Mart in Canada voted to join a union in 2004, the company shuttered the store.
But less dramatic tactics are the backbone of Wal-Mart’s crusade to keep unions out of its stores, as documented in a 2007 report by Human Rights Watch. Managers are given extensive training in union prevention techniques. New workers are required to watch anti-union videos. There is a union hotline that managers are directed to call at the first hint of organizing so that advice can be dispensed directly from the corporate headquarters in Bentonville, Arkansas.
Nelson Lichtenstein, author of the forthcoming book The Retail Revolution: How Wal-Mart Created a Brave New World of Business, says such tactics have now become standard for national retail chains. “It’s no longer extraordinary,” says Lichtenstein, who teaches labor history at the University of California, Santa Barbara. “Now everyone does it. Target does exactly the same thing.”
While these tactics have undoubtedly played a major role in keeping organized labor out of Wal-Mart stores, some observers also argue that unions haven’t made a persuasive case to workers.
“Why is it that workers that everybody acknowledges are not really that well paid are also not willing to vote to put a union in place at Wal-Mart?” asks Charles Fishman, author of the The Wal-Mart Effect. “That’s the $12-an-hour question. … What it says is people don’t think the union has more to offer them than Wal-Mart.”
Fishman points out that if every Wal-Mart worker received a $2 an hour raise, it would eat up all of the company’s $12 billion in profits.
“If Wal-Mart were to be unionized, the stores might look the same,” he says. “The prices wouldn’t be the same, and the way the place operated wouldn’t be the same. Because there’s no room in there to be quote-unquote more generous to people on benefits or pay or staffing without changing the operation.”
After years of unsuccessful battles with Wal-Mart, the UFCW has been content in recent years to concentrate on bloodying the company’s image. The main vehicle for this effort has been the “Wake-Up Wal-Mart” marketing campaign. Through a Web site, protests and other communications tools, the UFCW has tarred Wal-Mart as a corporate behemoth that treats its workers like dirt and routinely violates labor laws.
There is some evidence that the campaign has been successful in affecting consumer behavior and instigating changes in Wal-Mart’s personnel policies. For example, the company has twice in recent years altered its health-insurance policies to make them somewhat more affordable for workers. And in December it settled 63 lawsuits alleging that Wal-Mart failed to pay employees their rightful wages for $352 million.
“They’ve had a positive impact, particularly on health insurance and particularly on the notion that somebody’s watching Wal-Mart,” says Fishman, about the “Wake Up” campaign. “We all know how we do the dishes, clean the kitchen, fold the laundry, rake the leaves if someone’s standing there with their arms crossed watching us.”
Now the UFCW hopes to capitalize on that groundwork by organizing workers.
Peter Rachleff, a labor historian at Macalester College, believes the time is ripe for the UFCW to take another run at Wal-Mart.
“Their anticipation of EFCA getting passed and their estimation of a changed political and economic climate all make this a time — not necessarilly a good time or an easy time — but a necessary time to shift their strategy and try to organize Wal-Mart,” he says.
But that doesn’t mean he believes they’ll be successful. “There‘s a lot at stake,” he says. “I’m not optimistic.”
Lichtenstein is even more blunt in assessing the UFCW‘s chances. “They know it will fail,” he says. “It’s designed to fail.”
But even failure can have an upside. “Demonstrating that failure shows we need something new,” Liechtenstein says. “We need a new law.”
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