- The Washington Times - Friday, June 25, 2004

Unions are planning a multimillion-dollar campaign to organize Wal-Mart employees as the nation’s largest retailer deals with an increasingly turbulent work force.

Union leaders say their chances for organizing Wal-Mart workers shot up this week when a federal judge in San Francisco said 1.6 million current and former employees could sue the retailer for sex discrimination in a class-action lawsuit.

The case “is an inspiration for all other Wal-Mart workers that acting together, they, too, can bring change to the workplace,” said Joe Hansen, president of the United Food and Commercial Workers, which has taken the lead in efforts to organize Wal-Mart employees.

The Service Employees International Union (SEIU) this week announced a $1 million organizing effort at the retail chain. Other unions are contributing additional but unspecified amounts that could add millions of dollars more to the effort.

Wal-Mart’s business practices “lead the way in corporations’ drive to lower pay and benefit standards everywhere,” SEIU President Andrew Stern said. “We are underwriting this effort to create a network of workers and communities united to bring Wal-Mart’s standards up instead of having Wal-Mart bring our standards down.”

Unions associated with the AFL-CIO national labor federation, for years, have tried to organize Wal-Mart’s 1.2 million U.S. employees at 3,500 stores into a union, but always ran afoul of management resistance.

The class-action lawsuit is one of the few times that Wal-Mart employees have joined to oppose the company. Female employees accuse Wal-Mart of overlooking them for promotions and paying them less than it pays male workers.

“I don’t know of any other big case against the company,” said Joe Sellers, attorney for the employees in the lawsuit. “There have been wage-and-hour cases, but they tend to be limited to certain states.”

Organized-labor leaders hope the frustration of employees in the lawsuit will motivate them to seek union representation for other grievances.

“It may have helped them in the sense it permitted the plaintiffs to put together evidence,” Mr. Sellers said. “Unions could argue they could do a better job of representing them in the future.”

Unions say the success of Wal-Mart, the nation’s largest private employer, threatens their viability.

With many Wal-Mart full-time employees earning about $9 per hour, competitors are forced to cut pay and benefits if they want to stay in business. Federal minimum wage is $5.15 per hour.

In addition, the company buys many of its products from the lowest-wage foreign suppliers, meaning many U.S. producers must reduce wages and other expenses or get pushed aside, according to union leaders.

Competition from Wal-Mart was a contributing issue in Giant’s and Safeway’s labor troubles earlier this year.

When the grocers demanded during contract negotiations to cut back wages and benefits of the least experienced employees to stay competitive with nonunion shops, their unions threatened to strike. A shutdown of 325 stores in the Washington and Baltimore areas was averted by an agreement on March 30 that did not completely satisfy either side.

Wal-Mart says it has remained nonunion as a preference of employees and management.

“Our associates value the relationship that they have with their managers and have rejected the union time and time again,” said Christi Davis Gallagher, Wal-Mart spokeswoman. “We simply do not believe that unionization is right for Wal-Mart.”

However, management consultants say Wal-Mart’s policies are effective in keeping unions out.

“Their experience in containing the entry of unionized labor into any of their stores begins with their recruiting practices, training and labor guidelines,” said Doug MacDonald, spokesman for AT Kearney, a management consulting firm.

Opinions of job candidates about unions are a consideration in whether to hire them, Mr. MacDonald said. Even after they are hired, management tells employees that their job opportunities would disappear if they unionize, he said.

George Whalin, president of San Marcos, Calif., Retail Management Consultants, said unions have failed at Wal-Mart so far because most employees lack better alternatives.

“By and large, Wal-Mart treats their people pretty well,” Mr. Whalin said. “They don’t pay them very well, but they can’t.”

A union would provide little improvement for employees, he said.

“Let’s say the union comes in and gets their wages bumped up by 30 percent,” Mr. Whalin said. “Some portion of those people will lose their jobs.”

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