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Labor Board May Set the Stage for Wal-Mart Union Election

December 2, 2004
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No Wal-Mart store is unionized, but that may soon change, according to the Denver Business Journal.

Seventeen auto-service employees in Loveland, Colorado, signed union cards calling for an election, saying that their department is independent from the rest of Wal-Mart. The Business Journal reported that the National Labor Relations Board planned a hearing in Denver for Dec. 2 to certify the petition and set a time for the election.

Much of the union-related activity at Wal-Mart to date has been going on in Canada. A government agency has certified a union at a Wal-Mart in Jonquiere, Quebec. And last month, the Saskatchewan Appeal Court ruled against Wal-Mart in an ongoing battle over whether the company has to show its anti-union strategy materials to a Canadian labor board.

In America, the chain continues to have a love-hate relationship with the public. Fortune magazine has named it one of the most-admired companies in America, and the company is wildly popular among some consumers; it has sold more than a billion dollars of products on a single day. But it has also had to wage an advertising campaign to counter a class-action discrimination suit as well as several grass-roots efforts around the country seeking to prevent stores from opening.

The store has also worked hard to avoid unionization. The AFL-CIO cites the experience of author Barbara Ehrenreich, who worked at Wal-Mart and in other low-wage jobs as research for her book Nickel and Dimed. Ehrenreich recounts that she and other new employees had to watch a video warning them against joining a union. The union contends that "Wal-Mart's virulent anti-union policies prevent workers from winning family-supportive wages and benefits." Meanwhile, the Web site of the United Food and Commercial Workers says, "The world’s largest retailer is also the world’s biggest union buster and anti-worker corporation. For workers who speak out for unionization, Wal-Mart is a war zone."

Unions are "trying every way, which, where to organize Wal-Mart" since it’s such a huge employer, says Tom Connors, vice president of the consulting company ORC in New York and an expert in labor relations. Still, he says, the task will be very difficult to accomplish on a large scale. He cites several reasons:

Pre-emptive human resources practices: "Wal-Mart works very hard at communicating with its employees and determining the problems on a store-by-store basis and resolving the problems with employees," he says. "It doesn’t give the union a handle to come in and get an organizing campaign going." Connors estimates that Wal-Mart’s turnover is about 20 percent less than its competitors. He says the company generally does as good a job as its competitors at addressing employees’ problems and getting rid of managers who don’t treat employees fairly.

The nature of its jobs: "You don’t have to have any skills to go to work at Wal-Mart," he says. Employees without a lot of marketable and valuable skills, he says, often leave fast-food jobs for a job making about $10 an hour at Wal-Mart and find themselves happier than they were flipping burgers.

The nature of the company: Wal-Mart is indeed a large employer, but it’s not like many large employers, where tens of thousands of employees work in each location. "It’s one thing to attack a big company that has a big plant that has 5,000 people," Connors says, but it’s another to have many different union locals try to organize in so many locations. "That’s really difficult for unions to do," he says.

Benefits: Some Wal-Mart employees have indicated that they’d like to unionize because they believe that their health benefits would improve. While this certainly is true for some employees, Connors says, many Wal-Mart employees quit before becoming eligible for health benefits. This makes it difficult for union organizers to excite employees about unionization (as does the fact that many employees are covered through a spouse or parent). Wal-Mart’s message to employees, Connors says, is " ‘we’ll provide you health benefits if you’re going to commit to us.’ I don’t think you can blame them for that."

Consumers: Often, the people who shop at Wal-Mart are its employees--the same people whom union leaders are asking to join in unionization efforts. This, Connors says, can make things tricky when unions run intense anti-Wal-Mart campaigns. "A lot of their members shop at Wal-Mart and enjoy those low prices. You don’t want to alienate your members."

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