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By now, everyone knows that the AFL-CIO has spent tens of millions of dollars and thousands of hours trying to get Walmart’s hourly employees to join the union (some union, any union). Their organizing drive was smart, well-conceived, and timely. Seemingly, the conditions couldn’t have been more ideal. Walmart’s wages are low, their benefits are lousy, and, by all accounts, the working conditions at some of their stores are about two cuts above those of Haiti.
Yet even with these strategic advantages, the AFL-CIO wasn’t able to make so much as a dent in Walmart’s formidable armor. Indeed, the drive to organize the mega-retailer has been no more successful than the U.S. government’s War on Drugs. Not one single Walmart store (out of what—4,000?) in the U.S. has voted to go union. Not to criticize the AFL-CIO (they don’t warrant criticism because they did their best), but that seems like a statistical impossibility. Even a banjo hitter gets the occasional homerun.
Still, as disappointing as the organizing drive was, the reasons offered by Walmart employees for not wanting to join up make eminent sense. As much as they would’ve liked to become union members, most of them were simply too frightened to take the next step. Fear is a powerful motivator, especially when it involves our livelihoods. Few of us are willing to risk economic suicide.
At Walmart, any talk in the breakroom about wanting to join a union will get you noticed, and if you happen to be one of the union activists who’s passing out literature and urging people to sign cards, you’re liable to get fired. Yes, it’s illegal to fire an employee for disseminating pro-union literature; it’s a clear-cut violation of federal labor law. But they fire you anyway, and then dare you to figure out how (without a union to represent you) to get your job back. Next question?
It’s understandable why the House of Labor wants to break Walmart’s strangle-hold on its hourly workers. Besides providing hundreds of thousands of employees with better wages and benefits, busting Walmart would be a tremendous public relations coup. Walmart Stores, Inc. is not only the largest private sector employer in the U.S., it’s the largest private sector employer in Canada, and the largest private sector employer in Mexico.
Moreover, in addition to being the most humongous retail entity in the history of planet Earth (bigger than the storied East India Company), Walmart also happens to be one of the most virulently anti-union conglomerates ever to exist, which is why getting even one single, solitary Walmart store to cross over would be a milestone.
Showing how versatile and nimble-minded they were, the UCFW (United Food and Commercial Workers) assisted Walmarters in forming an “independent” employees committee. The group calls itself “OUR Walmart.” It isn’t a union. There are no union reps, no bylaws, no monthly dues. It’s merely a grassroots group of hourly employees dedicated to improving themselves. And unless Walmart executives wanted to look like Stalinists, they had no choice but to allow it.
The following is posted on the OUR Walmart website:
“In June of 2011, nearly 100 Associates representing thousands of OUR Walmart members from across the United States came to the Walmart Home Office in Bentonville, Ark., and presented a Declaration of Respect to Walmart executive management. The Declaration calls on Walmart to:
* Listen to us, the Associates
* Have respect for the individual
* Recognize freedom of association and freedom of speech
* Fix the Open Door policy
* Pay a minimum of $13/hour and make full-time jobs available for Associates who want them
* Create dependable, predictable work schedules
* Provide affordable healthcare
* Provide every Associate with a policy manual, ensure equal enforcement of policy and no discrimination, and give every Associate equal opportunity to succeed or advance in his or her career
* Provide wages and benefits that ensure that no Associate has to rely on government assistance”
Some of these bullet points are positively heartbreaking in their simplicity and modesty. Asking your employer not to punish you for talking to a union rep or advocating union membership? Asking your employer to “respect” you? Asking your employer to provide wages and benefits adequate enough not to cause you to seek government assistance? It’s pathetic. Clearly, this is a workforce crying out for a labor union to represent them.
On January 30, 2013, Walmart finally lost its patience. Aware that the UCFW was the man behind the curtain—instigating, agitating, arousing and advising members of OUR Walmart—the company finally sought relief. Citing a federal labor law (the Labor-Management Relations Act—better known as the Taft-Hartley Act) that prohibits picketing for longer than 30-days when seeking union representation, Walmart asked the NLRB to intervene on its behalf.
What happened next was anti-climatic. To its credit, rather than instantly filing ULP (unfair labor practice) charges against the UCFW, the NLRB simply warned the union to knock off the picketing, and said it would keep tabs on the them for the next six months to make sure they complied. Realizing it had pushed matters about as far as they could go, the UCFW immediately agreed. And that’s how it ended.
But give the union (and Walmart’s intrepid employees) credit for continuing to pound away with their chisels against the million-pound block of granite that is Walmart’s anti-union orthodoxy. If grassroots groups like OUR Walmart continue to chip away, it’s only a matter of time before a Walmart store somewhere in the U.S. votes to unionize. And that moment will be organized labor’s Arab Spring.
David Macaray, a Los Angeles playwright and author (“It’s Never Been Easy: Essays on Modern Labor,” 2nd Edition), was a former labor union rep. He can be reached at email@example.com