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Could Wal-Mart Revive the Labor Movement?

“I may have lots of faults, but being wrong ain’t one of them.”

–Jimmy Hoffa

Referring to Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. as a “successful business” is like calling the Pacific Ocean a “large body of water.” Since its founding in 1962, Wal-Mart has come to be recognized as a marketing phenomenon, a retailing juggernaut, an icon, a household word around the globe.

Wal-Mart has 60 stores in Communist China. It sells more records, more groceries and more toys than any chain in the U.S. It’s not only the largest private employer in the United States, Mexico and Canada, it’s the largest private employer in the world, and the fourth largest employer of any kind, behind the Chinese Army, British National Health Service, and Indian Railways.

Tangentially, it’s also become a symbolic thorn in the side of organized labor. Actually, it’s more than a thorn; it’s a metaphorical dagger in labor’s heart.

Back when Wal-Mart had a “mere” 3,600 stores in the U.S. (there are 4,000 today), the AFL-CIO launched an aggressive organizing drive against the company, looking to crack its imperious, enamel-like shell. Yet, despite bringing all of its formidable resources to bear, the House of Labor could not convince the employees of a single store to join the union, further solidifying the giant retailer’s worldwide reputation as being more or less “union proof.”

In truth, the overall record, while calamitous, hasn’t been a total goose egg. Over the years there have, in fact, been a handful of Canadian Wal-Mart stores that voted to join a union-no small accomplishment considering the opposition they faced. We can’t count the “unionized” Wal-Mart stores in China, because Chinese unions are State-owned entities serving as little more than political tools.

Alas, the only Wal-Marters in the U.S. to have voted in favor of a union were a group of meat-cutters in Texas, who, in 2000, voted to join the UFCW (United Food and Commercial Workers). The company responded by instantly shutting down its meat-cutting operation and going to pre-packaged meats at over 150 stores in Texas and the southwest (an indication of just how vehemently anti-union their management is).

But let’s give Wal-Mart employees some credit. They aren’t stupid. It’s not that they can’t see the advantages of joining a labor union, or don’t care about improving their wages, benefits and working conditions. For the most part, what prevents these people from signing union cards isn’t ignorance, but fear-the fear of losing their jobs, the fear that the company will close up shop and move to another location if they go union, or fire people who are caught circulating union literature.

At Wal-Mart it’s understood that if the bosses catch you passing out union pamphlets, you’re history; they fire you. Employees are routinely warned of the evils of union representation, and cautioned to report any union organizers lurking about. It’s a gestapo-like atmosphere. Which raises the question: Isn’t it illegal to threaten or discharge an employee for disseminating union literature? Of course it is. It’s a clear violation of federal labor law, and Wal-Mart knows it.

The problem is, not only are unfair labor practice charges (ULPs) difficult to prove in court, but a company with Wal-Mart’s muscle isn’t going to worry about something as petty as an obscure labor statute. Even if they get nailed a few times (which they have), they’re willing to risk it. Wal-Mart has found that the public relations backlash to getting hit with the occasional ULP is miniscule.

However, as grim as the future appears, it isn’t hopeless. Indeed, there’s a scenario by which Wal-Mart’s employees not only organize themselves, but rise up and lead a renaissance-a Great Revival-of union activism and influence.

And no, it’s not a fairy tale.

First, a quick look at what happened to the movement. Arguably, there were two crushing blows that put organized labor on the ropes: one was an increase in aggressive, anti-union tactics by American corporations, traceable to President Reagan’s sudden firing of 11,000 air traffic controllers, in 1981; the other was the loss of, literally, millions of well-paid, richly-benefited jobs in the manufacturing sector.

These jobs-in the auto industry, in steel, rubber, timber, furniture, heavy equipment, pulp and paper mills, etc.-generated considerable purchasing power. They were jobs that afforded employees new homes and new cars, jobs into which sons and daughters proudly followed their parents. It’s no exaggeration to say that it was these jobs that were responsible for “inventing” the middle-class.

Today, however, the mantra you keep hearing is that the United States has shifted from a manufacturing economy to a “service economy.” Accordingly, the unions that have continued to prosper are the “service” unions, those whose workers are immune to having their jobs co-opted or sent overseas: teachers, nurses, pilots, actors, screenwriters, longshoremen, police and firemen, truckers, railroad workers, carpenters and the like.

Although we still build cars in this country, the combination of foreign brands cutting into the U.S. market and manufacturing plants moving to the anti-union Southern states has decimated the UAW (United Auto Workers). Overall union membership in the U.S. has dropped from a high of 35% (during the 1950s) to about 12% today, and no group has taken a more dramatic hit than the UAW.

But there’s another, generally overlooked classification of “service” job that is also immune to having its work shipped off to a foreign country. It’s the retail clerks. They’re the people who man the checkout stands, deal with the customers, stock the shelves, and generally keep the store running. They’re the people who work at Wal-Mart.

Consider: If America’s prestigious “big boy” unions (autos, steel, heavy equipment) have been laid low by the effects of globalization, is it not unreasonable to suggest that labor’s less glamorous but more secure “little brothers” step in and fill the void?

After all, a union’s success is the product of two factors: leverage and a willingness to fight. Being willing to fight, but having little leverage, means, game as you are, you’re destined to go down in flames. Conversely, having considerable leverage, but being unwilling to fight, means you’re destined to tread water, and deserve no more than you get.

So what would happen if Wal-Mart employees across the county were to simultaneously throw down the gauntlet? What would happen if they announced, en masse, that they were going to seek union affiliation-either by joining an existing union or forming one of their own-and dared the company to try and stop them?

Wouldn’t such a splashy public declaration (via full-page ads in major newspapers, TV and radio) put Wal-Mart on the defensive? Wouldn’t all the national attention prevent the company from resorting to its usual tactics of illegal threats and intimidation? Without the fear of being fired, employees would be free to vote as they pleased. The floodgates would open.

Moreover, with so many of its 4,000 stores involved, Wal-Mart wouldn’t have the tactical option of shutting down those units that voted to go union. There simply would be too many of them.

Think about it. If Wal-Mart workers announced-in front of God, Pete Seeger, and the Department of Labor-their intention to unionize, what could Wal-Mart management legally do to prevent them? With so much sunshine let in, any move they made would be subject to intense scrutiny. The employees’ declaration would carry the moral authority of Ronald Reagan’s famous, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!”

This is where the AFL-CIO and its money enter the equation. In addition to paying for the newspaper and other media spots, the AFL-CIO could be counted on to provide free legal representation to anyone who was fired for his or her union involvement. If there’s one thing the House of Labor has plenty of, it’s money. The AFL-CIO’s legal defense team lives for moments like this.

The fact that America’s retail clerks can’t be swallowed up or outsourced needs to be seen as more than just a lucky break. It’s a circumstance which, if played right, can be converted into an enormous leverage. Wal-Mart’s magnitude, high profile, and dependence upon a mega-sized workforce are the very components which, ironically, make it vulnerable to a well-orchestrated uprising.

And it’s not only Wal-Marters who have this opportunity laid before them. With the luxury of knowing that their jobs can’t be pulled out from under them, the retail clerks at Target, Starbucks, Home Depot, et al, would also have the power to drop the hammer. Audacious as it sounds, retail clerks, if mobilized, could be the ones to reinvigorate the labor movement. Crazier things have happened.

DAVID MACARAY, a Los Angeles playwright and writer, was president and chief contract negotiator of the Assn. of Western Pulp and Paper Workers, Local 672, from 1989 to 2000. He can be reached at: dmacaray@earthlink.net

 

 

 

 

 

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David Macaray is a playwright and author. His newest book is How To Win Friends and Avoid Sacred Cows.  He can be reached at dmacaray@gmail.com

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