Two weeks ago, the meat cutters at a Wal-Mart store in Texas won union recognition, the first ever in the history of the nation's largest retailer. This week, the retailer announced that it was eliminating the union jobs.
Wal-Mart Stores Inc. announced that it was closing its meat-cutting operations in 180 stores in six states, including the Jacksonville, Tex., store that won recognition. Consumers would get no more fresh-cut meat, only "case-ready" products cut and wrapped before the products are shipped.
The Wal-Mart story is a classic case of the legal cat-and-mouse game being played out nationwide as the labor movement seeks to gain a foothold in the traditionally nonunion service sector to offset losses in its industrial membership base.
Outside of the Northeast, union representation at supermarkets tends to be weak. A few chains have become the target of labor's longings, quite like Wal-Mart, a company that has used every tool to keep out unions. Wal-Mart, which operates general retail stores as well as supermarkets, insists that it has an "open-door" approach to labor relations and that the company's profit-sharing program eliminates the need for unions in its stores.
The company said yesterday that its move away from meat-cutting was part of an industry trend toward pre-wrapped meat and was not a reaction to the union election, in which meat cutters voted 7 to 3 to join the United Food and Commercial Workers Union (UFCW). "This decision was in no way related to the Jacksonville situation," Wal-Mart spokeswoman Jessica Moser said.
The announcement earlier this week that Wal-Mart was eliminating meat cutters from its stores in Texas, Oklahoma, Missouri, Kansas, Arkansas and Louisiana was coincidental with the union vote, Moser said. The company had been planning the shift in the meat departments for months, and the meat cutters would be offered other jobs, she said.
"To roll out a program of this magnitude takes months of preparation," Moser said. The new program will be phased in at the 180 stores starting in May, she said
The UFCW is skeptical. After the union victory in Jacksonville on Feb. 17, UFCW President Doug Dority called the election results "the vote heard round the world." In the labor movement, getting Wal-Mart workers to vote for a union is as rare as getting General Motors Corp. to sell Ford Motor Co. products. It simply isn't done.
This week's company announcement, the UFCW said, was an attempt to deny efforts by meat cutters at other Wal-Mart facilities a chance to vote for the union. For the UFCW, Jacksonville was to be the first step in an organizing campaign it said was beginning to show promise at Wal-Mart stores in other nearby East Texas towns, such as Palestine and Tyler, where meat cutters have petitioned for a union vote.
Even after this week's announcement, however, the legal war over union efforts to organize employees isn't over. The union said Wal-Mart cannot make any changes to its meat department in Jacksonville without first bargaining with the employees in the newly elected union.