By Amy Joyce
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 4, 2005
A leading critic of Wal-Mart Stores Inc. will announce today the creation of a national association that will advise past and present Wal-Mart workers of their rights and help them to file complaints.
Leaders of Wake Up Wal-Mart say they hope the Wal-Mart Workers of America will give the retailers' employees a chance to band together and change the way Wal-Mart treats them.
Forming an association is the latest move by Wal-Mart's vocal critics, who hope to change the mammoth company's practices. The company is notoriously anti-union, giving supervisors a "Manager's Toolbox to Remaining Union-Free" and telling employees to rely on an open-door policy.
Unions have been flummoxed by the inability to organize Wal-Mart workers, and they count the company as one of the major organizing challenges they face. The United Food and Commercial Workers union formed Wake Up Wal-Mart earlier this year to push for changes in what it deems bad labor practices at the company. The Service Employees International Union provided seed money for Wal-Mart Watch, a nonprofit group that also opposes the company's business practices.
Wake Up Wal-Mart stresses that it is not attempting to form a union. But the move is an effort to organize Wal-Mart workers in a wide way. It remains to be seen whether it will succeed.
"This isn't really anything new," said Wal-Mart spokeswoman Mona Williams. "The unions have tried to organize Wal-Mart associates through the Internet for more than five years . . . with no success. . . . We might be concerned if this group was offering solutions to some of the issues working people face each day, but that is not the case."
"They are reaching out and offering the workers a service, but they are also laying out the possibility of workers beginning to work together," said Harley Shaiken, a labor professor at the University of California at Berkeley. "So as an individual, you don't have to confront the largest employer in the world. You can do it as a group."
Other groups have formed similar organizations, including the AFL-CIO, which created Working America in 2003. Its more than 1 million members are workers without a union.
Shaiken said this is a good time to launch such an association, as "the world's largest retailer has been on the defensive of late . . . and the counter to it is Wal-Mart telling its workers, 'Really, you don't need your rights.' And that doesn't fly." Wal-Mart recently launched its largest public relations blitz since it was founded to try to improve its battered reputation. It is holding an economic conference in Washington today where economists will discuss the broad impact of the company on society.
Paul Blank, director of Wake Up Wal-Mart, said he hopes to reach 100,000 employees in the next several weeks to offer free membership in the association.
Any employee who signs up will have access to a Web site that includes a list of company's ongoing legal battles, a toll-free help line and a link to a recently disclosed memo outlining the company's attempts to cut health care.
Wake Up Wal-Mart raised money to provide $200 in health care assistance funds to 50 uninsured workers, saying this underscores its contention that Wal-Mart does not provide adequate health care benefits to its employees. That money was raised through 102 Halloween candy fundraisers that the group and its supporters held at stores throughout the country to highlight health care issues. Blank said more money will be raised in the future for health care assistance.
The site informs employees they may be eligible for unemployment compensation if their hours have been cut -- along with a link to state unemployment offices. It explains overtime pay, equal employment rights, rights regarding occupational safety and health, workers compensation, and the Family and Medical Leave Act.
"The best way for Wal-Mart workers to have a voice is through a union," Joe Hansen, president of the UFCW, said in an e-mail. "Wal-Mart Workers of America will mobilize and empower Wal-Mart workers to change Wal-Mart into a responsible corporation."
The group plans to reach workers by visits at home, advertisements in local media and word of mouth.
"We have a lot of Wal-Mart workers come to us directly because of serious concerns they have at the company," Blank said. "So now we have an association that they are going to be able to join to help work on those issues."