Briefing: Wal-Mart's anti-union practices

Topics:

Facts about Wal-Mart

  • Wal-Mart is the world’s largest retailer and largest private employer.
  • Sam Walton founded the firm in 1962 as a single store in Arkansas, USA.
  • It now has more than 5,700 stores worldwide.
  • It employs 1,500,000 workers worldwide.
  • Wal-Mart is the largest retailer in the USA, Canada and Mexico and a major competitor in the UK, Germany, Brazil and South Korea.
  • The FT Global 500 ranked Wal-Mart as the sixth largest multinational according to the total worth of its shares.
  • Wal-Mart’s CEO Lee Scott took home $17.5 million in 2004, which equals $8,434 an hour. An average Wal-Mart worker earns just $9.68 an hour.
  • The average pay for a Wal-Mart sales assistant is $14,000 a year - $1,000 below the poverty line for a family of three.

Wal-Mart and union busting

Wal-Mart has over 3,600 stores in the United States and not a single one is union organised. Wal-Mart says it employs “associates” not workers.

Wal-Mart founder Sam Walton was deeply anti-union. In his autobiography he boasted that “we’ve never lost a union organising election” at Wal-Mart.
Sam Walton & John Huey, Sam Walton: Made in America, Doubleday, 1992 p.129

The Walton family support the anti-union National Right to Work Foundation. It donated $70,000 from 2000 to 2003. The Foundation works with business to undermine the right of workers to organise. For example it was instrumental in passing “right-to-work” legislation in Oklahoma, a law designed to discourage workers from joining a union or paying any dues.

Manager’s anti-union toolbox

Wal-Mart provides its managers with a handbook titled, “The Manager’s Toolbox to Remaining Union Free” on how to prevent and respond to unions in their stores.

“Wal-Mart is opposed to unionisation of its associates. Any suggestion that the Company is neutral on the subject or that it encourages associates to join labor organisations is not true.”
Wal-Mart, “Labor Relations & You at the Wal-Mart Distribution Center #6032.”

Wal-Mart has a systematic method of tracking workers who have grievances that could lead them to form a union. The Union Probability Index (now termed “Unaddressed People Issues”, UPI) is a tactic the company uses to identify any potential hotbed of union activity.

From the results of an annual internal survey of workers’ attitudes about working conditions, the UPI rates stores by their level of employee dissatisfaction. Unfavourable responses to certain questions, according to a company document, “have been shown by research to indicate low morale and potential interest in third-party representation.”

Stores that score unfavourably must take steps to respond to employees’ issues to prevent them from seeking help from a union.

When these preventative measures fail to stop a union drive, Wal-Mart orders managers to call the ‘Union Hotline’. The warning signs include extensive socialising among co-workers, more complaints lodged against managers by employees, and “increased curiosity” in employment policies.

Butchers in Texas

Only five U.S. Wal-Mart stores have held union representation elections since the United Food and Commercial Workers’ (UFCW) national organising effort began in 1998. And of the five elections, only once did workers choose union representation. That successful vote occurred in 2000, in Jacksonville, Texas, where meat department workers voted seven to three to be represented by the UFCW.

Some of these workers had previously worked in other, union-organised grocery stores and appreciated the better wages and benefits they received as union members.

In 1999, the UFCW started a nationwide effort to organise Wal-Mart’s meat department employees. In response, Wal-Mart’s People Division, the department that handles anti-union efforts, jumped from 12 employees to nearly 70.

According to a complaint issued by the US arbitration board, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), the company engaged in numerous illegal activities to thwart the Jacksonville union effort, including:

  • Interrogating employees about their union activities and sympathies.
  • Telling employees that Wal-Mart had gone through their files to determine whether they were for or against the union.
  • Purchasing new meat-cutting equipment to address employees’ problems and influence their vote against the union.

Despite heavy-handed pressure from Wal-Mart, workers in Jacksonville voted to form a union on 17 February 2000.

But 11 days later, Wal-Mart announced out of the blue that it was discontinuing all meat-cutting operations nationwide and would instead stock its stores with wrapped meat. The company then refused to recognise and bargain with the UFCW, arguing that the Jacksonville meat department employees were no longer an appropriate unit for organising, separate from the rest of the store. This effectively smashed the unionisation drive.

Two years later, an NLRB judge issued a ruling requiring Wal-Mart to bargain over the effects of the discontinued meat-cutting operations. The judge, however, did not require Wal-Mart to bargain a contract with the UFCW.

Both the UFCW and Wal-Mart appealed the ruling to the Board in Washington, DC, where it still remains pending, more than five years after the workers first voted for a union. Even if the Board rules in their favour, all of the Jacksonville workers who originally voted have now left the store.

Shopworkers in Quebec

Wal-Mart entered the Canadian retail market in 1994 when it purchased the discount chain Woolco, buying all but 22 stores. All 10 of Woolco’s union-represented stores were among the 22 stores Wal-Mart refused to purchase.

Wal-Mart opened its store in Jonquière, Quebec in 2001. Workers approached UFCW representatives to start an organising drive, and after the UFCW collected union authorisation cards from what they thought to be a majority of eligible employees, they applied for recognition with the Quebec Labour Relations Board. Quebec law grants workers union representation after a majority signs cards, rather than forcing them through an election process.

When the Labour Board was determining which employees were eligible for union representation, it found that the UFCW did not have a majority. The Labour Board consequently scheduled a union representation election instead of certifying the union. In April 2004, workers voted against union representation by only nine votes.

Workers witnessed threatening and intimidating behaviour by managers, who tried to stop them from communicating with reps about the union.

Workers would not be cowed, and soon after the election, more and more signed union authorisation cards. On August 2004, when presented with cards signed by well over a majority of the store’s eligible employees, the Labour Board certified the UFCW as the workers’ representative.

Throughout the autumn and early winter, Wal-Mart and the UFCW bargained for a contract. It eventually became clear to the UFCW that Wal-Mart would not agree to any contract. So in February 2005, the union asked the Quebec Ministry of Labour to name an arbitrator to impose a contract through the binding arbitration provision offered in Quebec.

The company responded by announcing it was closing the Jonquière store, claiming poor sales. The move was both abrupt and unusual as Wal-Mart rarely closes a store without subsequently opening a supercentre in the area.

After the store closed, 68 of the former Jonquière workers filed a complaint with the Quebec Labour Relations Board, claiming Wal-Mart closed the store in retaliation for organising a union. In September 2005, the Labour Board agreed with the workers, and ruled that since Wal-Mart did not intend to close the store permanently, the closure was intended as a reprisal against union organising.

The Labour Board has not yet ruled on the remedy, but it could impose fines on Wal-Mart and may even demand the company find jobs for the employees at other stores.

Tire and lube technicians in Colorado

Tire and lube technicians initiated an organising drive in Loveland, Colorado. Workers were frustrated by major understaffing, high workload and having to miss lunches and breaks.

After the first few weeks of union meetings, nine of the 16 workers had signed union authorisation cards. In November 2004, the tire and lube workers filed a petition for a union election with the NLRB. But it took the agency three months before it would schedule an election, more than twice as long as usual.

The delay in the election process demoralised the organising drive. The delay also provided Wal-Mart with more time to pressure employees to vote against the union.
The day after talk of the union spread, Wal-Mart flew in about 10 staff. They forced employees to sit through presentations and videos, which suggested that unions hurt peoples’ jobs and take money out of their pay cheques without letting them know. Workers were even shown fictional depictions of union organisers scaring people into signing union authorisation cards.

But nothing Wal-Mart could do to intimidate employees had more of an impact than its announcement of the closure in Quebec. Two weeks after the Jonquière announcement, tire and lube workers voted 17 to one against union representation.

Between 1998-2003, 288 “unfair labour practice” charges were lodged against Wal-Mart, accusing the company of interfering with its employees’ freedom of association. Of these charges, at least 94 resulted in formal complaints brought against Wal-Mart by the NLRB.

Among the NLRB complaints were 41 charges of terminating employees for union activity, 59 charges of surveillance of union activity, 59 charges of interrogation and 47 charges of unlawful promises or benefits to dissuade workers against organising.

The agency’s prosecution of unfair labour practices resulted in at least 11 rulings against the company and 12 settlements.