Wal-Mart Ready

Gulf Shores    A front page story in the Wall Street Journal trumpeted the fact that Wal-Mart has been training supervisors throughout the stores where they manage more than 1-million workers as the country’s largest private sector employer in their anti-union message now more finely calibrated not to the generalized fear of unions but to the specific threat posed by the potential passage of the Employee Free Choice Act under a different Congress and Administration next year.  This is not news, my friends; this is simply a confirmation of common knowledge.  This report fits right in there with questions about whether the Pope is Catholic or the bear embraces the woods to which you can now add, “Does Wal-Mart fight unions?”

    Since no union is really trying to organize Wal-Mart workers — and this is a sad, sad state of affairs for both unions and Wal-Mart workers, the union avoidance staff in Bentonville finds themselves a little like the ads about the Maytag repair man — looking for work and making it up when they can’t find it.  EFCA and the impending election are made for them

    Everything about EFCA is moving surprisingly early though.  Yesterday I was having breakfast with a UFCW International representative we have worked with closely, and mentioning to him that in Louisiana the opposition to EFCA was already running a radio ad against Senator Mary Landrieu as a potential vote “for” EFCA.  To our surprise we had to stop in mid sentence because we noticed a tv set across the room was running an ad the same way.  The WSJ says this is a $50M campaign to oppose, so we’ll all be hearing (and seeing) more of this every day.  This is going to be the hot button issue of 2009.

    There was a lot of mischief in the article about whether or not Wal-Mart was “telling people how to vote.”  One quote was the following:

    "The meeting leader said, ‘I am not telling you how to vote, but if the Democrats win, this bill will pass and you won’t have a vote on whether you want a union,’" said a Wal-Mart customer-service supervisor from Missouri. "I am not a stupid person. They were telling me how to vote," she said.

    This isn’t a worker in America (or any other country) who won’t get the Wal-Mart message.  It’s the usual simple:  “if you know what’s good for you” line that permeates every workplace.  

    Another question raised by the WSJ reporters, Ann Zimmerman and Kris Maher, was whether or not the company was crossing the line in these mandatory meetings (and incidentally I think mandatory meetings would be banned by EFCA as well, but I’ll check) because some hourly workers were involved.

    Wal-Mart may be walking a fine legal line by holding meetings with its store department heads that link politics with a strong antiunion message. Federal election rules permit companies to advocate for specific political candidates to its executives, stockholders and salaried managers, but not to hourly employees. While store managers are on salary, department supervisors are hourly workers.

    Three sad things here I should point out.  The first is the obvious one that I’m not sure Wal-Mart cares.  The second is that even if they did, there would be no financial penalties that Wal-Mart would have incurred from this action, so it doesn’t matter to them.  And, thirdly, an hourly worker would have to actually file a charge before the NLRB complaining about these meetings (and risk their job obviously) in order for anything to happen, and that seems unlikely as well.  

    Those three things alone are an argument for labor law reform.  Now for Wal-Mart and any other employer, almost anything it wants to do, including scare the bejesus out of their workers and managers if they vote for Obama, can be done under the classic labor doctrine of “no harm, no foul.”  

    Some day we need a law that at least protects workers.  And, maybe even gives them the ways and means to organize as well.

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