Rollback Wages! Will Labor Take the Wal-Mart Challenge?

By Featherstone, Liza | The Nation, June 28, 2004 | Go to article overview

Rollback Wages! Will Labor Take the Wal-Mart Challenge?


Featherstone, Liza, The Nation


Staying union free is a full-time commitment. Unless union prevention is a goal equal to other objectives within an organization, the goal will usually not be attained. The commitment to stay union free must exist at all levels of management--from the Chairperson of the "Board" down to the front-line manager. Therefore, no one in management is immune to carrying his or her "own weight" in the union prevention effort. The entire management staff should fully comprehend and appreciate exactly what is expected of their individual efforts to meet the union free objective.... Unless each member of management is willing to spend the necessary time, effort, energy, and money, it will not be accomplished. The time involved is...365 days per year....

This admonition comes from a handbook Wal-Mart distributes to managers, and gives an idea of the passion and vision behind Wal-Mart's unionbusting project. The $259 billion retail behemoth that has become a defining feature of the American landscape has also profoundly altered labor politics, deploying ever more creative and ruthless tactics to suppress the right to organize, while driving down wages and benefits in the retail industry and beyond.

The company is providing a business model widely imitated by other corporations, especially its competitors. To take one recent example, after striking for months, grocery workers in Southern California were forced to accept a vastly reduced health plan early this year, as supermarkets, anticipating competition from new Wal-Mart Supercenters throughout the state, refused to compromise with the union--probably the first time in history that a potential competitor who had not even entered the market yet was such a key player in a labor dispute. But the California grocers are not alone. Supermarkets all over the country have been lowering wages and decimating workers' health plans. Management claims these cutbacks are necessary to compete with Wal-Mart, but another explanation makes at least as much sense: "Greed," says Linda Gruen, a former Wal-Mart worker now organizing supermarket chains for the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW). "Management sees what Wal-Mart gets away with," she says, and realizes that the way to increase profits is to do the same.

Wal-Mart, which topped the Fortune 500 this year, for the third year in a row, is not just an industry leader: It is an economy leader, the nation's largest private employer by far, with over 1.2 million employees. That number is growing all the time, as Wal-Mart opens new stores just about every week. The average wage is around $8 an hour--and the health plan so expensive and so stingy in its coverage that many workers go without, or depend on the government to pay their medical bills. Says Susan Phillips, vice president of the UFCW and head of its working women's department, for any private-sector union in the United States today, "anytime you go into negotiations...it's like there's this invisible 800-pound gorilla sitting in the room at the bargaining table." This is reflected particularly by employers' ebbing generosity on healthcare, but also on wages, pensions and other benefits. Journalist Bob Ortega observed in his 2000 book, In Sam We Trust, that Wal-Mart's "way of thinking," its relentless focus on giving the customer the lowest price, "has become the norm," not just in retail but in all businesses. This can't be done without crushing labor.

That's why a consensus among labor leaders is emerging that organizing Wal-Mart workers is an urgent priority--perhaps the most urgent facing a labor movement that is losing density and influence. Asked what it will take to organize Wal-Mart, Al Zack, outgoing assistant director of strategic programs for the UFCW, points to Wal-Mart's stated commitment to remaining "union free." Says Zack, "When the labor movement...matches that commitment, then it will be successful."

It would be difficult to exaggerate the magnitude of this challenge.

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