Union launches Wal-Mart organizing drive

For the last six years the United Food and Commercial Workers union has led a national publicity campaign that has resulted in millions viewing Wal-Mart as a monster that chews up its workers and takes advantage of its customers. The union is now shifting gears, however, and renewing an effort it set aside six years ago – a drive to organize the workers employed by the retail giant.

The union has dispatched 60 organizers to 15 states to start the new campaign at Wal-Mart.

A UFCW, Local 464A union rep in northern New Jersey told the World that “during the Bush years, with regulatory bodies stacked against us and having to hold onto the rafters just to keep our heads above water, it was tough to start a major new organizing campaign, but now workers have some better things going for them.”

He explained: “For one thing, Wal-Mart really blew it and ended up losing on Election Day, last year. Obama won that election with the support of the workers and their unions even though Wal-Mart came out and tried to strong arm people. Wal-Mart managers were calling in workers and scaring them into voting against Obama. It blew up in their faces.”

The recent union victory at a Canadian Wal-Mart, he said, has also helped to reduce the fears, that some in the union had, that taking on Wal-Mart was just too big a task. Wal-Mart was forced to accept a 2-year contract imposed by a Canadian government arbitrator at its store in St. Hyacinthe, Quebec. The company also appears poised to lose several other cases pending in Canada.

The union local rep said that for the UFCW itself the urgency of organizing Wal-Mart is becoming greater. He said that as contracts expire at the large Shoprite, A&P, Grand Union and Pathmark chains in New Jersey and southeastern New York State, for example, “those companies cite the economic threat they face from Wal-Mart as justification for trying to cut the wages and benefits they pay out.”

He said that the union’s response to such demands from other retailers is, “Instead of trying to cut back your workers, you should be backing our effort to unionize Wal-Mart.” Wal-Mart’s negative impact on a growing number of other businesses is adding to what the UFCW sees as a growing base of support for its organizing drive.

As the largest private employer in the United States, with over 1 million on its payroll, Wal-Mart is dictating terms to its suppliers, forcing them to sell their goods at bargain basement prices. Wal-Mart is telling its suppliers that they must roll back wages and benefits they pay to their workers and has, indeed, had significant success in accomplishing that goal.

The union, when it approaches workers, zeroes in on three main issues. The first, of course, is the low wages paid to employees.

The second is the high amounts the company charges employees for medical benefits. The benefits are so costly and cover so little that half those employed by the company qualify for Medicaid.

The third big bone of contention is the forced, unpaid overtime for which the company is famous.

The union launched its organizing effort, April 30 with a sophisticated, targeted series of briefings with congressional representatives in the nation’s capital. Lawmakers who represent districts in which stores are being organized were carefully included on the list of those visited by the union and its supporters. More than 100 workers joined union staffers to explain to the representatives how Wal-Mart can be expected to violate labor law during this drive and how it can be expected to abuse workers who stand up for their rights. They also urged the legislators to back the Employee Free Choice Act, which would level the playing field between workers and employers in both organizing drives and bargaining over first contracts.

The lawmakers were told what happened, for example, when the UFCW, 10 years ago, organized the first meat-cutting department in a Wal-Mart store in Texas. The company refused to bargain with the union and responded by shutting down all its meat-cutting departments nationwide. The National Labor Relations Board ruled in favor of the union but it took nine years worth of court orders to finally bring Wal-Mart back to the table. The company continues to stall in the bargaining that finally began this year, ten years after the workers had originally won union representation.

The workers who joined the union staffers on Capitol Hill came from each of the states to which organizers have been dispatched.

A worker at a Wal-Mart store in Dallas told congressional reps that store managers there threatened to close the store if workers voted for the union.

Another worker said store managers at a Miami Wal-Mart interrogated him in an effort to get him to tell them who, in his department, supported the union.

A worker at a store in Glendale, Illinois said she had been forced to attend four mandatory, anti-union, anti-Employee Free Choice Act meetings in one week. Although the meetings are legal under current labor law, the threats and intimidation faced by Wal-Mart workers are not.