Feb 21, 2005
The AFL-CIO and six unions, including the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW), have stated their intention to unionize Wal-Mart. They've launched a 25 million-dollar campaign to inform the public about just how bad Wal-Mart is.
There's plenty to point out. Wal-Mart sales clerks average just over $13,000 in annual wages – almost a thousand dollars less than the official poverty level for a family of three. Wal-Mart regularly hands out Medicaid forms to its employees, who can't afford to cover their children under its high-priced health plan.
In addition to publicizing facts like these, the unions plan to work with other groups to block the construction of new Wal-Mart stores. They also propose to distribute flyers and hold pickets out in front of existing Wal-Mart stores across the country, calling on people not to shop at Wal-Mart.
But one thing seems to be missing from the AFL-CIO's planned activities: the active participation of the Wal-Mart workers themselves.
It's understandable that an attempt to unionize the company might begin outside the workplaces. Wal-Mart is notoriously anti-union. Any workers in any individual store who attempt to unionize know their jobs will be in jeopardy. Earlier this month, Wal-Mart announced that it plans to close its store in Jonquiere, Quebec – a recently unionized Wal-Mart store – and the only one in North America. Whether Wal-Mart actually closes that store or not, the threat shows something of the difficulties Wal-Mart workers face in organizing a union.
There's nothing wrong with picketing a store from outside, asking customers to respect the workers' wishes – IF the workers themselves have asked for that kind of action.
But whether help comes from the outside or not, organizing the company depends on the workers themselves.
It's almost as if the AFL-CIO, the UFCW, and the other unions hope to use public opinion to pressure Wal-Mart to accept the union, without the workers' participation.
Effectively, by picketing against the stores themselves without the engagement of the workers inside, trying to get the customers to leave, the unions are saying that they want to close down those stores – to take away the Wal-Mart workers' jobs in order to protect union workers' jobs elsewhere. They make it seem like the unions' interests are entirely separate from those of the Wal-Mart workers.
In so doing, the unions end up pitting themselves AGAINST the workers at the stores they picket.
And by fighting against the building of new stores, they're pitting themselves against the residents of the poorer areas where Wal-Mart tends to build its stores – areas where workers are desperate to find any kind of job, and there are precious few places to shop already.
Companies like Wal-Mart use propaganda depicting unions as some well-paid elites feeding off of other workers. It's not true. But this new AFL-CIO campaign reinforces this picture for Wal-Mart workers.