Wal-Mart Has Perfected the Art of Union-Busting

Want to understand why so many American workers find it so hard to organize unions in their workplaces? Look no further than Wal-Mart, a researcher for Human Rights Watch says.

Wal-Mart is a case study "of the abysmal workers' rights regime we have here in the United States," said Carol Pier, senior researcher on labor rights and trade for Human Rights Watch, an independent, nongovernmental organization that investigates human rights violations around the world.

In a speech last week at the University of Minnesota, Pier described her two-and-one-half-year study of Wal-Mart's labor-management record, which culminated in a 210-page report, issued in 2007, titled "Discounting Rights: Wal-Mart's Violation of U.S. Workers' Right to Freedom of Association."

The report found that while many American companies use weak U.S. laws to stop workers from organizing, the retail giant stands out for the sheer magnitude and aggressiveness of its anti-union apparatus. Many of its anti-union tactics are lawful in the United States, though they combine to undermine workers' rights. Others run afoul of soft U.S. laws.

"I like to think about it as a 'death by small cuts' strategy," Pier told the audience gathered at the University of Minnesota Law School. "And the effect is devastating."

In the course of her research, Pier interviewed dozens of current and former Wal-Mart "associates" (the term the company uses for its employees) and supervisors in six states and pored through thousands of pages of material from the National Labor Relations Board, the federal agency that enforces U.S. labor law.

Wal-Mart uses a subtle form of union-busting that starts with new employee orientation, where training includes watching an anti-union video, Pier said. The corporation has a 24-hour hotline for managers to report any signs of union organizing activity and a "labor relations team" is quickly dispatched to assess the situation.

Depending on the level of union activity, workers may be subjected to mandatory "captive audience" meetings where they are lectured on the evils of unionism. In some stores, Wal-Mart has crossed the line from subtle to heavy-handed by conducting surveillance on employees, disciplining and firing some.

When those actions are taken – clearly in violation of U.S. labor law – the failings of the system become clear, Pier said. Wal-Mart takes advantage of the exceedingly slow NLRB process to draw out cases for years. When a worker finally wins a case, the company faces no penalty – other than the requirement to reinstate the worker with back pay (minus anything he or she earned in other employment) and to post a notice saying "they won't do it again."

With nearly 1 million employees in the United States, Wal-Mart is the country's largest private employer. Yet none of these workers belongs to a union. Employees at two stores in Quebec, Canada, finally won union representation, but both stores have been closed – the second one earlier this month.

The International Labor Organization has cited the lack of penalties – and the fact that workers can be "permanently replaced" if they strike – as reasons that U.S. labor law fails to meet international human rights standards, Pier said.

The proposed Employee Free Choice Act – supported by Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama and many Congressional Democrats – would address some of the shortcomings in U.S. labor law by levying fines of up to $20,000 for each violation and permitting workers to choose union representation by signing cards, bypassing the drawn-out NLRB election process during which many employer violations occur.

Still, Pier worries the new law would not be effective without a broader campaign to improve people's knowledge of unions. Companies like Wal-Mart could still continue the kind of early union-busting – such as showing videos during employee orientation – that create a chilling climate for organizing.

"EFCA will help," Pier said of the proposed legislation. "EFCA's necessary. I don't think it's the fix."

Pier's talk was sponsored by The Institute for Global Studies and the University of

Minnesota's Human Rights Program and co-sponsored by the Labor Education Service, publisher of Workday Minnesota.

For more information

Read Pier's report, "Discounting Rights: Wal-Mart's Violation of U.S. Workers' Right to Freedom of Association," http://hrw.org/reports/2007/us0507/.


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