Gazing into the Future: Wal-Mart & the Unions

What’s the wave of the future for the United States in the 21st century?  You couldn’t go far wrong by answering, “Wal-Mart.”  In the case of the giant chain store, it might be fair to say “tsunami of the future.”

The United Food and Commercial Workers Union, together with the Teamsters Union, has lately been putting a large amount of its resources into a crusade to publicize the substandard pay and benefits of workers at the giant “big box” retailer, Wal-Mart.  This campaign, given the unions’ tepid effort to organize Wal-Mart’s “associates,” raises a number of interesting questions.

When the first Wal-Mart opened in 1962 in the sleepy hamlet of Rogers, Arkansas, one wonders if its legendary founder Sam Walton had any idea of what he was starting.  Named the “Most Admired Company in America” by Fortune Magazine in 2004, Wal-Mart is today the largest private employer in the United States AND in the whole world.  1.4 million American workers are employed by Wal-Mart.  The retailing giant rang up an astronomical $312.4 billion in sales last year.  During the first quarter of 2006, as the union campaign gathered steam, sales were up in US stores 12.3% over the first quarter of 2005.  With the union effort at its height in June 2006, sales were $33.1 billion, a 10.4% increase over June 2005.

So, what gives here?  Are the unions serious about their Wake Up Wal-Mart Web site AND national bus tour last summer?  Does organized labor in the US really think it can intimidate this retail behemoth into doing the right thing by its “associates” while its cash flow is ascending to new heights every week?

A lot of Democrats have been jumping on the anti-Wal-Mart bandwagon lately as well.  Washington State Senators Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell were featured speakers at Seattle’s Town Hall when the union’s national bus tour came to a roaring climax there last month.  Their speeches were, of course, filled with incontrovertible statements that Wal-Mart should pay its workers more money and grant better benefits.  Who could possibly argue with that?  But Democrats have nothing to say about why Wal-Mart has become working-class America’s favorite place to shop and what we can do about it.  As Liza Featherstone puts it: “Americans are desperate to catch a financial break somewhere.  Since breaks are not forthcoming on the job, or from the government — through, say, universal healthcare or free college tuition — many will continue to look for relief in the aisles of Wal-Mart.  When you’re struggling to make ends meet, a $2.50 bra and a $30 microwave look pretty good.”  Has railing against Wal-Mart become a substitute for demanding the breaks that the government is unwilling to give American workers?

And, what if the unions really did try to organize at Wal-Mart?  Doesn’t it occur to the unions that Wal-Mart employees might see their anti-Wal-Mart PR campaign as an attempt to take away the source of their meager paychecks (average $10/hr), only to protect the union jobs of Wal-Mart competitors?

Another possible obstacle to real organizing at Wal-Mart is the way the UFCW handled itself after it won union recognition for the workers at Wal-Mart’s giant store in Jonquiere, Quebec.  Instead of negotiating in good faith, Wal-Mart CLOSED(!) the Jonquiere store.  That’s right, folks, they grabbed their marbles and went home.  And what, you ask, did our side (the union) do about it?  Nothing, according to the UFCW rank-and-file Web site, Members for Democracy.  No food bank for fired workers, no emergency loan fund to protect mortgages of workers who had stood with the union, not even a threat to strike somehow.  No, nothing except bluster about taking Wal-Mart to court.  The union took their marbles and walked away, too.  Word gets around.  How can UFCW possibly hope to convince Wal-Mart workers, who have heard about the shame of Jonquiere, to want to stand with them?  When UFCW was asked to comment on this and other parts of this story, they didn’t return phone messages.

The legendary labor journalist, 92-year-old Harry Kelber, has a good idea.  Harry concedes that Wal-Mart is a tough egg.  But wait, he says, there’s 13 million of us, if you count the rank and file.  If we embarked on an all-out campaign to get unpaid union members to go and talk to their sisters and brothers at Wal-Mart, surely we could organize a few of their thousands of stores in the US.  Then the rest would be ripe to follow.

Would union members do this?  During the summer of 2001, UFCW polled its 1.2 million members and discovered that 120,000 of them were willing to “give 5 hours a month to organize the unorganized.”

Watch out, Wal-Mart!

Brian King is a steward in UFCW Local 1001 in Seattle.

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