Thursday, June 24, 2004

Take a gander at a few sentences from the handbook that Wal-Mart distributes to its managers:
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....
Now that Wal-Mart's in the news because of a class action suit on behalf of its female employees, labor needs to go after Goliath. The June 28 issue of The Nation analyzes the need and the prospects.
The need is that Wal-Mart is more than just a "$259 million retail behemoth". The worst part is that it provides "a business model widely imitated by other corporations, especially its competitors." The California grocery strike, as well as our own last fall, went badly for labor. Management claimed that it had to conserve funds in order to be prepared to meet Wal-Mart's prices in case Super Centers opened up nearby. But Linda Gruen, a former Wal-Mart worker now a labor organizer for United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW), offers a different explanation: "'Greed. Management sees what Wal-Mart gets away with,'" and likes the idea of more profit. Why not? After all, if other businesses can copy the way Wal-Mart treats its 1.2 million employees, they would only have to pay wages of about $8 an hour and provide health plans so stingy that most employees would have to go without or "depend on the government to pay their medical bills."
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.

Managers are taught how to screen potential employees to weed out the union troublemakers of the future. And before anyone is hired, she must sign a paper saying she'll never try to organize a union. That's illegal, but nobody's enforcing the laws against it. Inevitably, of course, some employees do try to organize. When that happens, a "'labor relations team'" is sent out by private plane to the offending store, "often the very day the call comes in." The only successful group ever to organize in the States was in Jacksonville, Texas, in 2000. Ten meatcutters voted 7 to 3 to unionize. Two weeks later, Wal-Mart switched to prepackaged meat and assigned the butchers to other departments.
Wal-Mart realizes that bending the laws this way will create some legal hassles, but the occasional fine has been well worth it. "Until labor laws make violating workers' rights a criminal offense--punishable by sending managers and CEOs to prison...challenges may be fruitless." The company has tried to forestall the creation of any such laws by becoming the number one corporate contributor to politics, with 85% of the money going to Republicans--who owe nothing to labor.
Considering Wednesday morning's headline about the class action suit, Wal-Mart may be in for some protracted and very expensive labor problems. But as determined as they've always been on labor issues, they won't fold easily.
Tomorrow, I'll summarize the various strategies that labor is considering against the world's number one retailer and its prospects for success.

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