Human Rights

Unions to Wal-Mart: The Gloves Are Off

After a few piece-meal failed attempts, a full force effort and new creative strategy are needed to organize the nation's largest retailer.
As the debate concerning labor's future rages on, prodded by Andy Stern, international president of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), and answered by one union after another, Sweeney has agreed on the need for debate and the need to form committees to discuss the various proposals generated. Workers in general and union members in specific can hardly find cause for inspiration or action in these multi-point programs. This is true, except in one very important area: the proposal for a full-scale campaign against Wal-Mart.

In the case of Wal-Mart, Stern has argued that one clear "purpose" for the AFL-CIO is in leading campaigns which transcend the interests of any single union and find common cause for all unions and indeed all working people. He has publicly argued in the debates around restructuring the federation that as much as $25 million should be set aside for the Wal-Mart campaign, virtually earmarking all of the HSBC/Household credit card money that goes to the federation. Sweeney has shrewdly stated publicly that perhaps even $25 million is not enough to fight Wal-Mart – indicating that it might take even more! Disappointingly, very few other unions have taken up the battle cry over Wal-Mart, perhaps because they believe that this is all just an argument between one or two people and a half dozen unions, rather than a fight for the future for American workers.

I would argue that a campaign on all fronts against Wal-Mart is the single organizing effort that offers the most hope for working families. Furthermore, driving an organizing program around Wal-Mart and its workers could potentially change the tide for labor and create organizational capacities that would give us fighting and winning forces for our future.

Wal-Mart and its wannabes are the GMs, Fords, Chryslers and U.S. Steels of our time. The great organizing drives of the 1930s were mounted around an understanding that there was a new industrial force reorganizing all of mass work. Wal-Mart and its clones have similarly restructured the nature of mass enterprise in service industries today, and therefore are transforming the fundamental business model that drives both domestic and international commerce.

The size, scale, strength, and location of the company are a direct challenge to almost any usual or common organizing strategy. One cannot go store by store with NLRB-style direct certification elections. There are just too, too many stores to believe that one could conceivably get a handle on the company in this way. Furthermore, the United Food & Commercial Workers (UFCW) has already tried this model aggressively and thrown the kitchen sink at the company without much success. One cannot also underestimate the weakness of the current law and the robber baron ruthlessness of the company and its culture. The often repeated true story of the UFCW winning an election in a butchery department in the Dallas area and Wal-Mart switching every store in the American empire to processed meat speaks volumes of the futility of this approach

A market-oriented strategy effective in direct recognition successes in other industries is also unlikely to be effective in organizing Wal-Mart. Arguably the southern California market had UFCW's best contracts and highest unionization rates, yet the threat of Wal-Mart's entry was sufficient to destabilize the bargaining relationships preemptively, rather than forcing Wal-Mart to move up to the market rates and benefits in order to enter the area. The power and efficiency of the Wal-Mart business model acts as a pervasive threat regardless of unionization. Recently, as Wal-Mart replaced Albertson's as the number one grocery seller in the Dallas-Fort Worth market, Albertson's countered by publicly announcing that it was unilaterally moving the bulk of its 20,000 workers in that area to part-time status with no benefits.

To state the obvious – there is no easy way to organize Wal-Mart workers. Furthermore, there is a pervasive culture that militates against organization, along with a generation of union avoidance work that permeates all parts of the personnel system. It is not cowardice, but good judgment that brings us to the basic conclusion that to organize these workers one must build a different kind of formation than we have seen previously. The mission cannot be to create simple "bread and butter" unionization for Wal-Mart workers; instead, as both Stern and Sweeney have argued, the grand vision has to be achieving change and a voice for all workers.

Get the idea of collective bargaining out of your mind. Collective bargaining requires two parties committed to at least a minimal level of good faith in practice and a concession of a countervailing level of power between management and labor. Currently, such programs are unimaginable at Wal-Mart and therefore at best a distraction. The mismatched imbalance of power is too extreme to imagine winning an agreement now. We need to put pressure on wages and benefits, and envision an organization that exerts constant pressure in a way that is unnatural under a bargaining regime. The first priority for workers at Wal-Mart has to be building a powerful organization on the job and in public vis a vis their employer.

Efforts to engage the community in conjunction with other allies on the requirements for new Wal-Mart store sites, including community benefits, have become increasingly successful. There are now examples like living wages (won in Chicago), store access (won recently in Hartford), environmental protections and disclosures (conceded in Tarpon Springs, Fla.). The missing agreement has been a formation that includes Wal-Mart workers asserting their own interests and objectives in the community. Similar fights with a worker face and voice would empower a worker association.

For workers to create an association at the workplace they will need a strong alliance of support in the community acting in concert with them and protecting their efforts to create space for organization and struggle. Such an alliance should be constructed on the broadest possible framework in order to unite all other organizations and interests who have an issue that engages the company and its practice. Community organizations like ACORN, and other civic organizations have raised concern about store traffic, location, safety, sprawl, and its impact on the community. Immigrant and civil rights groups have raised issues around discriminatory employment practices. Women's and labor groups have raised issues about sex discrimination in pay and promotions. Environmental groups have concerns that range from sprawl to green practices. Consumer groups have raised issues concerning toxic cosmetics, shoddy foreign goods, questionable financial services, and an array of similar issues. From such a burgeoning array of groups a very broad alliance could be constructed linking the interests inside the company with the public force of its activity.

Besides bringing together community organizations and institutions into such an alliance, there should also be an effort to recruit individual support for workers and their families who are organizing the association. This can be done in numerous ways (via canvass, internet, door to door, etcetera), but it is essential that there be a direct, independent, and large base of public support for the alliance and the association to offset the tactics that will be predictably taken by the company.

Critical to both of these efforts would be a stakeholder not usually seen in classic labor organizing: former employees. Wal-Mart, and companies that are following its business model, churn through the workforce. Wal-Mart claims that its turnover is now down to about 40 percent, but with 1.2 million workers that is still a huge number of workers – more than 500,000 – to spit out on an annual basis. These workers have experience with the company, have gained some perspective from their distance from the culture and the paycheck, and in many cases have issues about rights abridged and are even potential beneficiaries of efforts to reform the company's practices. They have a common cause and their voice is an important one to add in reforming the company, therefore a place should be made for them in this new type of organizational formation. The inability of most unions to allow useful and vital participation from workers who are unemployed, laid off, or fired is a critical weakness of the political structure of such institutions. We should not allow such barriers to exist in this new formation, because we need the help of such former workers for their own sake and in order to support both community and existing worker activity.

Stern's call for a campaign against Wal-Mart, and Sweeney's rejoinder to bring it on, but perhaps in an even larger way, is potentially the best news American workers have heard in several decades. At the least, a serious and well-resourced campaign focusing on Wal- Mart, even if it does nothing more than force the company to establish a fairer business model, will make a difference to Wal-Mart workers and their allies. It would also send the message to unorganized workers throughout the United States that labor cares – and will act – on behalf of the unorganized and oppressed. At the most, the Wal-Mart battle cry could create new momentum for mass organization among the literally tens of millions of unorganized service workers in firms both gargantuan and tiny, who are united in denying workers basic wages, benefits, and rights and are able to do so because workers lack voice and organization on the necessary scale.
This is an excerpted selection of an article that appears in the new issue of New Labor Forum. The full article is available in the magazine.
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