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Friday, August 01, 2008

Wal-Mart Is Afraid Democrats Will Help Workers

Just when you think Wal-Mart is getting a little better, you realize it's the same old union-busting firm it always was:

Wal-Mart Warns of Democratic Win, by Ann Zimmerman and Kris Maher, WSJ: Wal-Mart Stores Inc. is mobilizing its store managers and department supervisors around the country to warn that if Democrats win power in November, they'll likely change federal law to make it easier for workers to unionize companies -- including Wal-Mart.

In recent weeks, thousands of Wal-Mart store managers and department heads have been summoned to mandatory meetings at which the retailer stresses the downside for workers if stores were to be unionized.

According to about a dozen Wal-Mart employees..., Wal-Mart executives claim that employees at unionized stores would have to pay hefty union dues while getting nothing in return, and may have to go on strike without compensation. Also, unionization could mean fewer jobs as labor costs rise.

The actions by Wal-Mart -- the nation's largest private employer -- reflect a growing concern among big business that a reinvigorated labor movement could reverse years of declining union membership. That could lead to higher payroll and health costs for companies already being hurt by rising fuel and commodities costs and the tough economic climate.

The Wal-Mart human-resources managers who run the meetings don't specifically tell attendees how to vote in November's election, but make it clear that voting for Democratic presidential hopeful Sen. Barack Obama would be tantamount to inviting unions in...

"The meeting leader said, 'I am not telling you how to vote, but if the Democrats win, this bill will pass and you won't have a vote on whether you want a union,'" said a Wal-Mart customer-service supervisor from Missouri. "I am not a stupid person. They were telling me how to vote," she said. ...

Wal-Mart's worries center on a piece of legislation known as the Employee Free Choice Act, which companies say would enable unions to quickly add millions of new members. ...

Other companies and groups are also making a case against the legislation to workers. ...

The bill was crafted by labor as a response to more aggressive opposition by companies to union-organizing activity. The AFL-CIO and individual unions such as the United Food and Commercial Workers have promised to make passage of the new labor law their No. 1 mission after the November election.

First introduced in 2003, the bill came to a vote last year and sailed through the Democratic-controlled House of Representatives, but was blocked by a filibuster in the Senate and faced a veto threat by the White House. ...

Wal-Mart may be walking a fine legal line... Federal election rules permit companies to advocate for specific political candidates to its executives, stockholders and salaried managers, but not to hourly employees. While store managers are on salary, department supervisors are hourly workers. ...

On June 30 the National Labor Relations Board ruled that Wal-Mart illegally fired an employee in Kingman, Ariz., who supported the UFCW and illegally threatened to freeze merit-pay increases if employees voted for union representation. ...

Through almost all of its 48-year history, Wal-Mart has fought hard to keep unions out of its stores, flying in labor-relations rapid-response teams from its Bentonville, Ark., headquarters to any location where union activity was building. The United Food and Commercial Workers was successful in organizing only one group of Wal-Mart workers -- a small number of butchers in East Texas in early 2000. Several weeks later, the company phased out butchers in all of its stores and began stocking prepackaged meat. When a store in Canada voted to unionize several years ago, the company closed the store, saying it had been unprofitable for years.

Labor has fought back with a campaign to portray Wal-Mart as treating its workers poorly. The UFCW helped employees file a series of complaints about the company's overtime, health-care and other policies with the National Labor Relations Board. Dozens of class-action lawsuits were filed on behalf of workers, many of which are still winding their way through the courts.

Wal-Mart has been trying to burnish its reputation by improving its worker benefits and touting its commitment to the environment. ...

I have mixed feelings about unions, something is needed to allow workers to balance power in negotiations with firms, but I'm not sure unions are the best institution to defend worker rights in modern labor markets. But unions are the only effective power balancing institution available to workers, so practically it's unions or nothing, and I don't have any mixed feelings about Wal-Mart's active use of questionable legal tactics to oppose them.

Update: And, unemployment is up:

The U.S. unemployment rate jumped to a four-year high [of 5.7%] in July as companies shed workers for a seventh-straight month, further evidence that the economy remains vulnerable to a recession in the second half of the year.

    Posted by on Friday, August 1, 2008 at 09:27 AM in Economics, Unemployment | Permalink  TrackBack (0)  Comments (50)

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