Wal-Mart forced to bargain, finally, with Texas meat cutters

JACKSONVILLE, Texas (PAI) — It took almost nine years, a National Labor Relations Board ruling and several court orders, but Wal-Mart was finally forced to bargain with its unionized meat cutters in Texas.

Talks opened in Jacksonville on March 12, the United Food and Commercial Workers report. Now we’ll see if they get anywhere.

The saga began when the meat cutters in the Wal-Mart store in Jacksonville voted to have UFCW Local 540 represent them. They were the first Wal-Mart workers in the U.S. to vote to unionize.

Wal-Mart, the nation’s largest private employer, is notorious for its labor law-breaking and vitriolic anti-union attitudes. But to beat the meat cutters in Tyler, it outdid even itself.

To prevent other meat cutters nationwide from thinking that joining UFCW, which represents thousands of unionized meat cutters at other grocery chains, might be a good idea, Wal-Mart not only shut down the Tyler meat cutting department, it closed all its meat-cutting departments across the U.S. It switched to pre-packaged meat.

And of course the closure in Tyler led to a National Labor Relations Board ruling that Wal-Mart illegally retaliated against the workers for joining the union, followed by repeated long trips to court. Those finally ended late last year when the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans ruled for the meat cutters, against Wal-Mart, and upheld the NLRB’s order to the firm to bargain with the union.

“In one of the company’s most audacious displays of hubris, Wal-Mart first ignored the workers, refusing to bargain with them or provide information to their union. Only after the NLRB issued a complaint against Wal-Mart did the company try to move the goalposts by claiming workers in the meat department lost their right to representation because the skilled meat-cutting jobs had been replaced by a prepackaged meat program,” UFCW said.

The appellate ruling tossed out all of Wal-Mart’s excuses, UFCW added. But it said the whole saga proves the need for congressional passage of the Employee Free Choice Act. The bill, labor’s #1 legislative priority, would help level the playing field between workers and bosses in organizing by giving workers—the Wal-Mart meat cutters in this case—the automatic right to unionize when a majority of them sign union authorization cards, if that’s the route to unionization they want.

Under the Employee Free Choice Act, the meat-cutters, not Wal-Mart, would decide between recognizing the union via that majority sign-up and recognizing it via the NLRB-run election (which UFCW won).

And the Employee Free Choice Act would deprive Wal-Mart and other firms of the chance to run vicious, often illegal anti-union campaigns, because workers can opt for recognition through majority sign-up before the company’s campaign even begins.

“National and international law protect the right of workers to join an union of their choosing. When the outcome of an election is uncertain for this long in other countries, we call it a coup. When it happens here, it’s just another day on the job for the millions of American workers for whom a voice on the job is being unjustly denied. The story in Jacksonville, while particularly alarming, is far from the only one of its kind,” UFCW said.

“A multi-billion dollar war chest and a team of corporate lobbyists shouldn’t be prerequisites to the free exercise of federally protected workplace rights. Without legislation like the Employee Free Choice Act, workers will continue to fight drawn-out, expensive and—all too often—losing battles against multi-national corporate empires that see them as a liability to be minimized.

“If ever there was a case that demonstrated how utterly bankrupt the current system is, the Jacksonville Wal-Mart case is it,” the UFCW concluded.

But the saga is not over. The union noted that “even after clearing every hurdle Wal-Mart could throw in their path, these workers are still faced with a company across the table that has little legal incentive to deal with them fairly,” because current labor law does not force companies to bargain in good faith with unions.

If Wal-Mart stalls again in Jacksonville, Local 540 has no choice under current labor law but to go back to the NLRB with another complaint—which Wal-Mart can then appeal in the courts should the agency rule against it.

The Employee Free Choice Act would short-circuit that delay, too. It mandates that when the two sides cannot agree on a contract within 120 days of starting bargaining, the issues would be submitted for binding arbitration.