Dateline Texas

Always a Rat Race, Never a Union


Had there been a theater critic present in a certain Tyler courtroom last December 17, to witness a National Labor Relations Board hearing in which giant retailer Wal-Mart stood accused of various unfair labor practices in one of its stores, that critic would likely have found the brief drama wanting. The characters were predictable: On the left side was a trio of well-dressed, well-coiffed, no doubt well-paid Houston attorneys, representing Wal-Mart; on the right, a weary-looking counsel for the United Food and Commercial Workers and a bumbling government lawyer; in front, an imperious judge; to the rear, a row of middle-aged former Wal-Mart employees. The situation hardly seemed novel: A large American corporation had allegedly discouraged its workers from organizing and targeted those with union sympathies. And the plot fizzled: After having spent most of the day in negotiations, the workers settled with the company, for an undisclosed amount.

What was unusual about this spectacle went unstated, and that was that a union had been voted in at a Wal-Mart at all. In February of 2000, workers in the 13-person meat-cutting department at the Wal-Mart Supercenter in Jacksonville, a town roughly 30 miles south of Tyler, voted to be represented by the UFCW. It was the first and only time that a union has been successfully established in a U.S. Wal-Mart.

One might have thought that a dozen meatcutters in Jacksonville hardly posed any great threat to the country’s largest private employer, yet Wal-Mart acted aggressively to quash the union, before and after the election. “We signed representation cards, and all hell broke loose,” says former Jacksonville meatcutter Sidney Smith. The company announced, shortly after the election, that it would phase out the meatcutting departments in all its Supercenters, though it denied that the union drive had influenced its decision. Four of the workers who’d voted for the union were eventually fired. And the glacial pace of NLRB proceedings worked in the company’s favor. Even before the election, according to former meatcutter Dotty Jones, “They held a meeting and said there was nothing we could do, no matter which way the election went they would hold it up in court until we were old and grey.”

Keeping its stores union-free is as much a part of Wal-Mart culture as door-greeters and blue aprons. Says company spokesperson Jessica Moser, “While unions may be appropriate for other companies, they have no place at Wal-Mart.” So far the company has been successful in warding off unions, but there are three dozen other contested stores around the country, satellite battlegrounds in an ongoing campaign by the UFCW to organize Wal-Marts. It’s no easy task for the union, as Wal-Mart workers are often short term, anti-union indoctrination is a standard part of the company’s employee training program, and the typical government penalties assessed for unfair labor practices are spare change for the enormous company.

The UFCW began its campaign following a 1998 announcement by Wal-Mart that it would open a series of new stores, “neighborhood markets,” which would compete with local grocery stores–many of which are unionized and affiliated with the UFCW. Concerned that the presence of Wal-Mart markets would drive down wages at unionized groceries, union leaders “made a conscious decision the best way to keep wages and benefits up is to organize,” says UFCW spokesman Allen Zack. “Prior to that there had been very sporadic organizing efforts, but nothing coordinated, nothing national. Really it was when Wal-Mart said it was moving into where our members work, we decided we had to take action.”

The hub of the campaign is in Las Vegas, whose casino and construction industries are largely unionized, as are its supermarkets. It’s also a big Wal-Mart town, with 14 Wal-Mart, Sam’s Club, and Supercenter stores. About ten UFCW organizers are currently stationed in the city, trying to build support in all 14 stores. As it did in Jacksonville, the union has filed various charges of unfair labor practices against Wal-Mart in Las Vegas and blocked the only election scheduled so far. The company, meanwhile, accuses the union of filing charges with the NLRB and blocking elections as a ploy to disguise insufficient backing from workers. “At the very end when they realize they have lost all support they block elections,” says Moser.

But union drives have also sprouted up in scattered stores all over the country, thanks to a relatively new organizing tool: the Internet. “I’ve had over 3,000 contacts from employees,” says Zack. “The vast majority were over the Internet.” Though many of those contacts have come from former or soon-to-be former employees, increasing numbers of current workers are e-mailing the UFCW, according to Zack.

That’s essentially what happened in Jacksonville. In 1999, Jacksonville meatcutter Maurice Miller felt he’d been wronged by the company. “They had made me an offer to become a management trainee, then reneged on it,” he says. With the help of a relative who belongs to a union, Miller found the UFCW on the web and contacted its Washington headquarters. Not long after that, “I signed a union card, and I approached every one of them, at the time there were just 10 of us, and everybody signed the card in the unit.” High stress and few raises were common complaints. “They keep asking you to work harder and giving you more responsibility, but for the same low pay,” Miller says.

The company’s response to the Jacksonville union drive was orchestrated by Wal-Mart corporate headquarters. “What’s atypical about what Wal-Mart does is, as soon as there’s union activity, they fly in a team of union busters from Bentonville [Arkansas, where headquarters is located], including top management,” says Zack. “Store managers can’t take a single step without consulting corporate.” According to former employees, the new arrivals offered to help workers with their jobs and meanwhile listened in on their conversations. “There were six of them all together, like a team, they would get in and interact with the employees and say they were going to help, they’d be chit-chatting, also eavesdropping,” says Dotty Jones. “No conversation was sacred. They were always in the break room, or helping us to wrap meat. And then as soon as the election was over, you couldn’t find them anywhere.”

Jones herself was part of a second company strategy to defeat the union: Once the ten original meatcutters had signed union cards, three additional workers were transferred into the department. Jones, who had been working as a cashier, was one of them. “My husband was in upper management in a beef processing company, and they figured I would go the way my husband wanted,” she says. Yet while her husband was not a union supporter, she herself favored representation. “It was always a rat race. Management was never around to correct any problems. The way they handled the meat was unsafe. It was seldom clean,” she recalls.

After the workers voted in the union, the company’s final strategy was to get rid of the pro-union workers. Smith was fired for theft–after a manager agreed to let him buy a box of overripe bananas for 50 cents, Smith ate one of the bananas before paying for the box, and was judged to have stolen that banana. Another meatcutter, Joe Hendrix, says he asked the employee stationed at the deli counter, “Got any nachos today?” and was fired for ordering food while on the clock. Jones twisted her knee and, when she returned to work with orders from her doctor about what she could and could not do while on light duty, was not offered a position consistent with those orders.

In settling the Jacksonville case, Wal-Mart did not admit to any of the charges against it, including the alleged retaliatory firings. And according to the company, the employees who arrive on the scene when an organizing drive is underway are simply there to provide information, not eavesdrop. “They [the union] will say anything rather than admit that they have no support and our associates don’t want them to represent them,” says Moser, who went on to say that the election never would have gone the way it did had the 365 other associates in the Jacksonville store been allowed to vote. Sheila Barnes, who has worked at the Jacksonville store for ten years, agrees: “Maybe 15 or 20 people out of the whole store, not including the deli and the meat department, were for the union.”

The company snuffed out the Jacksonville union, but other organizing efforts have popped up, gopher-like, in other towns. A union election by meatcutters in Palestine in April of 2000 lost by just one vote. And an organizing drive is still underway in College Station, where workers’ complaints echo those of the Jacksonville employees. That campaign has been spearheaded by a group of night stockers, who say that conditions are unsafe, management shows favoritism to certain workers rather than offering equitable prospects for advancement, and pro-union employees are retaliated against.

In her recent book Nickled and Dimed, Barbara Ehrenreich chronicles her experience in three low-wage jobs, the third one in a Minneapolis Wal-Mart. Even as she recognizes that unions are no panacea for workplace ills, by the end of her Wal-Mart stint she seems both convinced that her fellow “associates” (as Wal-Mart calls its employees) need to organize and wistfully pessimistic that such an effort could ever succeed.

Some of the former Jacksonville workers feel the same way. “We were the first store to vote in a union, and whoopee, what did it accomplish?” says Jones. “They didn’t abide by no union. But you stick together for a common goal and think about the people following behind you. It’s not just you involved, it’s what’s right and what’s wrong.”