Thursday, June 24, 2004

Unionizing Wal-Mart is more than just a larger than usual challenge. It's a whole different ballgame, according to the June 28 issue of The Nation. United Food and Commercial Workers wouldn't have a prayer working by itself. Labor leaders know that and are discussing strategies, and several "large unions are launching joint campaigns to organize low-wage workers." But "partly because most people in the labor movement are preoccupied with defeating Bush, such dialogue is proceeding slowly."
As far as particular ideas, one of the first is that international cooperation might be useful to an organizing strategy. "As Andy Stern, just back from China, points out ... 'Wal-Mart is second only to our current President in unpopularity around the world.'" Cross-border solidarity might be helpful here from countries where Wal-Mart has been unionized, like Germany and Japan.
Many in the U.S. labor movement believe we'll have to think outside the box on this knotty problem. Joel Rogers, a longtime social-justice activist and University of Wisconsin political scientist, agrees that the traditional model of organizing--by industry, with a focus on getting a majority vote in each shop, which under the law makes all the workers in that shop part of the union--cannot work for Wal-Mart. Rogers advocates an approach he calls "open-source unionism," in which workers could join unions even if the majority of their co-workers had not yet chosen to do so.... Under this model, employers could not insure that by defeating unions in elections, their workplaces would remain union-free. While these unions would lack collective-bargaining rights, members would receive advice from the union on how to protect their rights during disputes, and help in improving pay and working conditions through collective action. They would also benefit from alliances with community groups and other unions in putting pressure on their employer.
This model has been tried by sweatshop workers in the U.S. and Latin America, not to mention New York City taxi drivers. They've used it "both to agitate for rights on the job and to develop political consciousness and become part of a larger social movement." How useful the strategy would be is hard to predict, but it's worth trying.
In the end, though, unless unions can find a way to threaten the company's profits, they will fail. Asking the public not to shop at Wal-Mart is a losing proposition. Even union members shop there because of the low prices, "making at least 30 percent of union credit-card purchases at the retail giant." The only practicable way to hurt profits would be to convince the progressive community that Wal-Mart is damaging laborers as a whole and costing all of us (for example, the medical care for underpaid workers). "Ultimately the entire progressive movement--not just labor--will have to make the unionization of Wal-Mart a priority."
Tackling this Goliath is an iffy proposition. It's encouraging that labor leaders are talking about this problem and entertaining so many new approaches. Yet as Mike Leonard cautions, in the labor movement, "it's a pretty rare day when we go beyond talking about a new idea, and that's part of the problem." And many workers are not optimistic now. Linda Gruen, who tried for several years to organize her Wal-Mart co-workers, is "not sure we will ever unionize Wal-Mart."
In my May 6th blog, I quoted part of an article from American Prospect that bears on the Wal-Mart question:
Enforcement of the Wagner Act, which allows American workers a free choice to vote in a union, has become a joke. Employers find it cheaper to fire pro-union workers, hire fancy law firms to conduct union-busting campaigns, and pay the very infrequent fine.

One happy exception speaks volumes -- the successful struggle by the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees to turn Las Vegas into a union town. Today, the most humble workers in Vegas's hotels -- those who clean the rooms -- are paid middle-class salaries with health benefits and have career opportunities. They are becoming homeowners and starting to live the American dream. The higher labor costs are a drop in the casino bucket.

After all, no inherent economic logic required semi-skilled factory workers to earn middle-class wages.

With so many jobs leaving the country, low wage jobs must be successfully unionized if we are to maintain a middle class.


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