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Wal-Mart, Union Vie for Tiny Shop

By T.R. Reid and Amy Joyce
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, February 25, 2005; Page E01

LOVELAND, Colo., Feb. 24 -- In the 35 months he has worked for one of the world's richest corporations, Joshua Noble has received several commendations, he says, and three raises. But that still leaves him with an annual wage below $20,000 and a grand total of one week of vacation per year.

"It's frustrating, to be at a big company for three years, and you're still struggling all the time," says the 21-year-old with a dark crew cut and an array of rings piercing his ears. "By the time they take out the health insurance [premium], you can't even pay rent. I have a full-time job, and I had to move back in with my parents."

Union supporters rally for Wal-Mart auto shop workers in Loveland, Colo. Twenty employees will vote today on whether to unionize. (Dennis Schroeder -- Rocky Mountain News)

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That frustration has turned Noble into a foot soldier in what seems likely to be one of the major union-management battlegrounds of the next decade: the fight to unionize Wal-Mart.

Noble, who makes his living selling tires and changing oil at Wal-Mart's massive "Supercenter" store here on the high plains at the foot of the snow-capped Rocky Mountains, has won enough support among his fellow employees in the auto-care shop to force a union election Friday among the department's 20 employees. If more than half the unit votes to organize, the Loveland store could be the first Wal-Mart outlet in the United States to have union employees.

But even if the world's biggest retailer prevails Friday in the battle of Loveland, Wal-Mart seems likely to face repeated union battles at its 4,800 outlets. The retailer recently has had to confront unions at its stores in this country and elsewhere. Two weeks ago, it said it would close a store in Quebec where newly unionized workers are attempting to negotiate a labor contract.

"Loveland could be a crucial foot in the door for us," says Dave Minshall of Local 7 of the United Food and Commercial Workers. "But even if we lose there, we have a bunch of other stores right here in the Colorado-Wyoming area that are pushing for elections of their own."

The UFCW is hardly alone in targeting the retail giant, which has 1.5 million employees and no union members in the United States. AFL-CIO President John Sweeney said Thursday that the big labor federation is "taking on Wal-Mart and insisting they raise their standards. This is a major effort and we are already deeply in it."

Andy Stern, head of the Service Employees International Union, has also called for a massive drive to organize Wal-Mart, proposing to divert $25 million a year to the effort.

But the retailer has enormous resources of its own, and has promised to fight organizing drives whenever they pop up among employees, whom Wal-Mart calls "associates."

The company's position, Vice President for Labor Relations Terry Srsen said in a statement, is that "our associates do not feel that a third party would add anything to Wal-Mart's culture or environment." To make sure the employees feel that way, the chain has dispatched information teams to Loveland to argue against union membership.

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