Wal-Mart's Union Stance Attacked

Union supporters rallied in 2005 in support of Wal-Mart automotive workers who were trying to organize in Colorado.
Union supporters rallied in 2005 in support of Wal-Mart automotive workers who were trying to organize in Colorado. (By Dennis Schroeder -- Rocky Mountain News)
By Ylan Q. Mui and Amy Joyce
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, May 1, 2007

Human Rights Watch, an advocacy group based in New York, released a report yesterday detailing what it called excessively aggressive tactics by Wal-Mart Stores to stop union organization in its stores.

The report is the first comprehensive look at the retailer's anti-union operations, the group said, though much information had previously been reported. Most of Wal-Mart's actions were legal but heavy-handed, the report says, including a rapid-response team to prevent organization, a hotline for store managers and tips on staying "union free." In addition, the report cites more than a dozen rulings against Wal-Mart by the National Labor Relations Board that found that Wal-Mart illegally confiscated union literature, prohibited discussions of unions and retaliated against union supporters.

Wal-Mart is the nation's largest private employer, with an estimated 1.3 million workers. In a statement, the retailer said it respects workers' right to organize and was committed to complying with laws governing unionization. The company said its employees have rejected unionization because they have "every opportunity to express their ideas, comments and concerns."

Wal-Mart criticized the report as relying on "incomplete interviews and unsubstantiated allegations." It accused the group of using the findings to bolster support for the Employee Free Choice Act, a bill that would make it easier for workers to organize unions and would represent one of the most significant revisions of federal labor law in 60 years.

Human Rights Watch endorsed the bill in its report. It enlisted House Education and Labor Committee Chairman George Miller (D-Calif.), who sponsored the bill, to speak on behalf of it in a conference call with reporters yesterday.

Human Rights Watch acknowledged that many companies employ similar tactics to keep unions out. But study author Carol Pier, the group's senior researcher for labor rights, said Wal-Mart's efforts dwarfed those of several of its competitors combined. "Wal-Mart does stand out for the sheer magnitude and aggressiveness of its anti-union apparatus," she said.

Human Rights Watch said it began investigating Wal-Mart's stance on unions in 2004 after reports of extreme measures it took to keep unions out.

One of the most-cited examples came in 2000, when 11 meat cutters at a Texas store won union recognition, the first in the company's history. Soon after, Wal-Mart eliminated the positions at 180 stores in six states. It has said the two events were not related. In 2005, Wal-Mart shuttered a store in Canada after workers voted to unionize. At the time, the company said the employees' demands would have made it impossible for the store to sustain its business. But last year, Wal-Mart said it would allow the All-China Federation of Trade Unions to set up outlets in its stores in China.

The report says there were 15 rulings against Wal-Mart by the National Labor Relations Board between January 2000 and July 2005 that still stand, compared with four rulings against rivals Albertsons, Costco, Kmart, Kroger, Home Depot, Sears and Target combined. In one case in Pennsylvania, the report says, the NLRB found that Wal-Mart illegally transferred union supporters out of a store and brought in union opponents to dilute efforts to organize.

Harley Shaiken, a professor at the University of California at Berkeley who specializes in labor issues, called the report "a devastating critique of Wal-Mart's labor practices."

"They don't come off well," he said. "There's just not a sense of openness and engagement that they have so carefully tried to foster."


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