Pearl River In 2005, I left the SEIU International board to run an organizing project directed at establishing whether we could successfully organize Wal-Mart workers on a number of fronts. This was a joint project involving ACORN, SEIU, AFL-CIO, and UFCW. SEIU was developing the Wal-Mart Watch effort based in Washington, DC, and our effort was the direct organizing component, while the Watch was the web and media side of the air war. The UFCW also began a parallel effort called Wake Up Wal-Mart centered on a bus tour that organized meetings and small rallies around the country, largely around UFCW locals.
Geographically, we focused on the Interstate-4 corridor in Florida running from roughly Orlando to Tampa – St. Petersburg, encompassing about twenty-one counties. At that time, 4% of the total revenue for Wal-Mart was coming out of that area.
Strategically, there were three legs to the stool: workers, store-siting in the footprint, and blocking international expansion.
First, would Wal-Mart workers join a union? We organized the Wal-Mart Workers Association to directly engage workers in the corridor, enroll them in the union, collect dues, and take direct collective action on the job. We had a team of about twenty organizers, split between labor and community work. We triggered the drive by accessing the Florida voter list and pulling all phone numbers for families making less than $50,000 per year. We used a robodialer (this was 2005!) with a two-pronged message, leading with the question of whether they, or anyone in their family, had worked for Wal-Mart, and did they know that there were rights and benefits they might not have realized. If yes, then what was their address, and we would follow-up. We would winnow out the bad calls, and the organizers would be on the doors the next day to do the visits.
We were clear that we were building a union, but that we would not file for an election, and we would win through action and campaigns, and not collective bargaining. Members joined on that basis. We signed up almost 65% of all completed visits, which was the best recruiting percentage I had ever tallied in any other union organizing drive. Wal-Mart workers wanted to organize and were ready to join the WWA on the basis presented. We surfaced the organizing committee publicly in a press conference at the point that we had committees in more than 30 stores with support ranging from 5 to 40%. We had close to 1000 members in about six months.
After we first went public, there were reportedly 100 Wal-Mart operatives from Bentonville sent into the Florida stores to counter our efforts. They had individual and captive audience meetings for six to eight weeks. One of our leaders literally had a one-on-one meeting with a Wal-Mart labor relations guy every shift for over 50 days. After they could not find a card signing effort or any sense of a pending filing, Bentonville pulled them away. We were able to maximize action on individual and collective issues using their “open door” policy and “grievance” procedures and through direct action at the stores. We won some wage increases, reinstatements, and a slew of schedule changes, because the company was forced to empower local managers to counter our claims that scheduling was done by Bentonville, Arkansas computers. They fired no one, and we never filed an 8(a)(3) charge (National Labor Relations Act charge alleging discriminatory discharge). We pushed, and they bent.