Anti-union Wal-Mart challenging UFCW

By DON McINTOSH, Associate Editor

United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) woke up late to the threat of Wal-Mart, said Al Zack, assistant director of the union's department of strategic programs.

For the first three decades of its now-legendary expansion, Wal-Mart was a discount retailer. It specialized in rural areas, and it gathered speed in low-wage, non-union parts of the country. In the last decade, having swallowed the heartland, Wal-Mart turned its attention to the coasts. And it was not until the mid-'90s that it began rolling out its new "supercenters" - one-stop shopping stores combining retail with grocery and in some instances gasoline. That placed Wal-Mart in direct competition with UFCW-represented grocery stores.

UFCW tried to organize the new competition, but quickly found that the company's fanatic commitment to keeping down costs made it possibly the most anti-union company in America. For thoroughness and sophistication, Wal-Mart's anti-union campaign is unrivaled. Because at least seven Wal-Mart managers have defected and now work for the union, the UFCW has a pretty good idea of the Wal-Mart anti-union game plan.

It starts in hiring, where managers are trained in how to spot people who are potential union sympathizers. In Las Vegas, according to Gretchen Adams, a Wal-Mart manager who defected to the UFCW in December 2001, that included anyone who had ever worked in a union shop, or even had a relative who belonged to a union. Adams said at new stores she helped open, applicants were interviewed by five managers before being hired. Zack believes Wal-Mart maintains a union "no-hire" list, a blacklist which would be illegal under U.S. labor law.

After hiring begins indoctrination. Their first day on the job, employees, called "associates" in Wal-Mart lingo, are shown a 16-minute anti-union video. And they're told their company is family-oriented, has good benefits, puts the customer first, has an open-door management style, shares its profits with all, gives back to the community...

"Wal-Mart does a great job of brainwashing," Adams said. "They call it Wal-Mart culture." Like other managers, as often as three times a day Adams led three 15 to 45-minute "rallies" - employee meetings that would end with the "Wal-Mart cheer."

To prevent associates from hearing any alternative view, Wal-Mart goes to extraordinary lengths to keep union organizers from contacting employees. Union organizers are forbidden to solicit employees on the job, and company policy makes it hard for pro-union workers to help union organizers contact co-workers off the job. On name tags, on the schedule, in meetings, company policy requires that Wal-Mart associates be referred to only by their first names (or first names and an initial for very common names.) Employee schedules are posted behind glass so no one can remove them. Anyone taking notes or photographing the schedule would be caught on closed-circuit camera, one of as many as 40 cameras that may be placed around a Wal-Mart store. The parking lot is also monitored.

An employee who shows an interest in other employees' last names is marked by management as a "person who bears watching."

In Urbana, Ohio, a Wal-Mart worker was given a written warning for trying to get her co-workers' addresses to invite them to a baby shower.

At the first hint of union activity, managers are supposed to call a hotline in Bentonville that activates the company's anti-union rapid response team, who may arrive as early as the next morning, empowered to take direct control of the store. Within days, local managers are trained to be the anti-union campaign's front line. The union has obtained copies of anti-union manuals used by the company [one is available on-line at]. Associates known to be contaminated by a union organizer's visit are singled out for special treatment, called into meetings one-on-one by specially trained company personnel. Zack said Wal-Mart had 12 specialists in its union-avoidance department before UFCW even began trying to organize. Now it has over 80.

The UFCW hopes to keep them busy.

The union began a nationwide organizing blitz in September 1999. Organizing drives have been launched in Nevada, Texas, Florida, Michigan, Kentucky and Indiana. In Louisville and Las Vegas, UFCW even has weekly radio shows designed to educate Wal-Mart workers about the labor movement and talk about Wal-Mart.

The union saw its first victory in March 2000, when meat department workers at a Jacksonville, Texas, Wal-Mart voted 7 to 3 to join the union. The company immediately announced it would phase out all meat departments (a move described in an internal memo as "the ultimate anti-union strategy"). It later rescinded that announcement. But it has refused to bargain with the Jacksonville workers, arguing to the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) that the meat department wasn't an appropriate bargaining unit. And it terminated four of the pro-union workers. [Three years later, the company agreed to pay back-pay to the fired workers to settle an NLRB complaint, but refused reinstatement.]

"Wal-Mart does a very good job of getting rid of union supporters," Zack said - assigning managers to watch them closely until they make some fireable mistake - like eating a banana, in one case.

In another case that went to trial, an NLRB administrative law judge described a pro-union associate at a Kingman, Arizona, Wal-Mart tire/ lube unit as "a marked man."

The NLRB has issued over 40 complaints against Wal-Mart in the last three years, charging it with violations of labor law.

Such lawbreaking is inevitable, Zack said, because the company will do whatever it takes to keep a union out.

"Wal-Mart must know what we know - that the first store to go union is going to breach the dam." Zack said that's because, contrary to the company's propaganda, many workers can see themselves how poor the company's pay and benefits are compared to their union counterparts. They earn within a couple dollars of minimum wage. The company medical plan is unaffordable to most - "catastrophic" coverage with high deductibles and premiums that range from $15.50 to $118.50 every two weeks. The retirement plan consists of a 401(k), to which Wal-Mart contributes 2 percent (2 percent of $8 an hour, remember.) There's also a profit-sharing plan in which employees are gradually vested over two to seven years, that is based on investments in company stock.

Many critics of Wal-Mart's labor policies portray the company as a chronic low-wage employer, an employer that pays so low that its workers are forced to accept public assistance for food, housing, or health care, meaning in effect the taxpayer is subsidizing the company's payroll.

Adams said the mantra about the open-door worked - she heard many tales of deprivation when she was a Wal-Mart manager. "Somebody would be upset, with tears in their eyes, telling me about their financial problems, saying they couldn't afford both health care and food for their kids. I would send them to the personnel manager, who would refer them to government agencies and food banks."

In one case, Adams recalls, Wal-Mart co-workers took up a collection to help get an apartment for an associate who was living in her car.

As if low wages weren't hardship enough, the company is developing a record of violating wage and hour laws. About 30 states have initiated lawsuits against Wal-Mart for making workers perform overtime work without pay. The company reportedly paid $50 million two years ago to settle a Colorado unpaid overtime lawsuit involving 69,000 workers. In New Mexico, it paid half a million dollars to settle a suit involving about 100 workers. And in December, in the first such case to go to trial, a Portland jury found Wal-Mart guilty of forcing employees at 18 Oregon stores to work overtime without pay from 1993 to 1999.

[Meanwhile, a class action lawsuit filed in June 2001 charges that Wal-Mart systematically discriminates against its female employees in promotions, compensation, and training at over 3,300 Wal-Mart stores nationwide.]

Today, some 3,000 Wal-Mart employees around the country subscribe to a UFCW e-mail list, and employees at more than 100 stores in over 25 states are trying to unionize.

And UFCW wants them as members - not only to help them win better wages and working conditions, but to protect existing UFCW members. People only spend so much on grocery items, UFCW knows. So when a Wal-Mart moves in, it takes away business from existing retailers. Because they operate on low profit margins, grocery stores react very quickly to lost sales by cutting hours. Competition from Wal-Mart has been mentioned as a factor in hundreds of recent layoffs at Fred Meyer.

"One of our journeyman clerks makes $15.20, and then a senior Wal-Mart worker makes $7 to $9. Our employers, if they lose business, cut the hours of our members," said Jeff McDonald, union representative at Tigard-based UFCW Local 555.

Even the threat of a Wal-Mart drives down wages, McDonald said, because the company's unionized competitors are able to make a more credible argument that they will go out of business without wage concessions. Eugene grocery workers nearly went on strike against such concessions after the employer group argued that the Wal-Mart invasion - three new Wal-Marts in Eugene in the last several years - made it necessary to cut medical benefits and wages.

UFCW's first priority is to organize Wal-Mart to take wages out of competition, but as long as the company remains a low-wage, non-union employer, the union intends to be a part of community coalitions that try to block stores from opening. When doing so, the union finds a multitude of allies opposed to Wal-Mart for increasing traffic woes, noise, unattractive buildings, driving out small local businesses, favoring sweatshop-produced goods, and in general being a bad corporate neighbor.

Wal-Mart is currently trying to get approval to build new two new stores in the Portland area, and citizens have been turning out in large numbers in opposition.

At a March 12 Hillsboro Planning Commission hearing on a proposed Wal-Mart supercenter at Cornelius Pass and Baseline roads in Hillsboro, 350 local residents turned out. The store would be the largest Wal-Mart in Oregon - 210,155 square feet. The hearing began at 7 p.m. Just two residents testified in favor of Wal-Mart. Testimony against lasted until 1 a.m. The commission will continue to take written testimony until April 9, and could make a decision as early as its May 14 meeting.

In Oregon City, 150 people came out Feb. 26 for the first public hearing on a proposed store at Molalla Avenue and South Beavercreek Road on a site that would require a zoning change in order to get rid of some low-income housing. City planners have recommended that the Planning Commission reject Wal-Mart's proposal, for reasons of traffic, architectural design and compatibility with the area. A decision may come at its April 8 meeting.

Though union members make up a small portion of the residents who have come out to oppose the new sites, UFCW expects to continue to take part in such "site fights." In little more than a decade, Wal-Mart has gone from selling no groceries at all to become the nation's number one seller of groceries. With the company planning to build 200 to 210 new supercenters during its next fiscal year, if UFCW wants to protect its members, it will have little choice but to fight.

April 4, 2003 issue

Home | About

© Oregon Labor Press Publishing Co. Inc.