The NewStandard ceased publishing on April 27, 2007.

Workers, Activists Redouble Efforts to ‘Beatâ€TM Wal-Mart

by Andrew Stelzer

Even as the retail empire grows and profits, an ever-expanding array of challenges rise up from the grassroots and even rain down from government officials, posing a real threat to the company’s traditional impunity.

Florida; Sept. 16, 2005 – A lawsuit filed against Wal-Mart alleging its suppliers in five countries are violating human rights standards set by the retail behemoth’s own code of conduct is the latest attempt to force the world’s largest corporation to reform its business practices. The suit is one of several new efforts that focus on workers’ rights at multiple stages of the store’s supply chain.

Email to a Friend
Print-friendly Version
Add to My Morning Paper

On Monday, the International Labor Rights Fund (ILRF) filed a class-action lawsuit against Wal-Mart on behalf of workers who produce garments and toys for the retailer in Swaziland, China, Nicaragua, Indonesia and Bangladesh. The suit alleges that the foreign workers, which include sewers, mechanics, machinists and quality inspectors are forced to work overtime, denied full overtime pay, and paid below their respective countries’ minimum wages. The suit also cites cases of alleged physical abuse of workers by supervisors. The plaintiffs also include California workers who accuse the company of unfair competitive practices, which have undermined worker’s benefits in their state.

Wal-Mart first adopted supplier standards in 1992, mentioning them in many of its promotional materials since. The current version of those standards maintains that workers who produce goods to be sold at Wal-Mart cannot be required to work more than fourteen hours a day, more than six days a week, and shall be compensated in accordance with each home country’s laws.

Although Wal-Mart’s official position is that it allows its workers to form or join unions, the retail giant is “strongly opposed to third-party representation,” and the company advises store managers to oppose unionization attempts

Terry Collingsworth, the executive director of the International Labor Rights Fund, told The NewStandard that after two years of research it became clear that "the conditions in their factories are pervasively and routinely in violation of Wal-Mart’s code of conduct."

In Collingsworth’s view, "Wal-Mart knows that the codes of conduct are just a public relations device."

Wal-Mart’s supplier standards also include a provision labeled "Freedom of association and collective bargaining," which requires that suppliers "respect the rights of employees regarding their decision of whether to associate or not to associate with any group." But Collingsworth said the foreign workers are in fact denied the right to organize – not a surprise, considering the corporation’s anti-union track record at its retail outlets in North America.

Although Wal-Mart’s official position is that it allows its workers to form or join unions, the retail giant is "strongly opposed to third-party representation," and the company advises store managers to oppose unionization attempts. One of the most glaring examples is what Collingsworth describes as "pervasive anti-union action" in the US was in 2000, when a Texas Wal-Mart eliminated its meat department after eleven meat cutters voted to join a union.

Last April 2005, In Jonquiere, Quebec, Wal-Mart closed one of its stores six months after the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) won the legal right to represent the 190 employees working there. Louis Bolduc, an organizer for the UFCW in Quebec, later told the Washington Post that the Jonquiere closing caused employees in a Montreal store to vote against joining a union because "people were afraid if they voted for the union the store will be closed."

Organizers who have prevented Wal-Mart from opening stores in California, Illinois and other states traded ideas and best practices

Wal-Mart store managers in the United States have also been given a booklet titled "A Manager's Toolbox to Remaining Union Free" which contains passages such as the following:

In the event you find a union authorization card in your facility or hear associates are attending union meetings and signing authorization cards, it is imperative you contact the Union Hotline at 501-273-8300 immediately. Wal-Mart must respond to this type of union activity immediately in an effort to stop card signing before the required 30 percent signatures have been obtained.

In an effort to circumvent the corporation’s anti-union efforts, Wal-Mart workers in Florida have begun organizing a group called the Wal-Mart Workers Association (WWA). Workers pay $5 a month in dues to the WWA, founded in Central Florida in April. Organizer Rick Smith said WWA already has over 200 members from 30 stores throughout Central Florida. An office has been established in Orlando, and Bill Lavie, an organizer with the WWA, said another chapter has begun signing up members in Dallas, Texas.

"We’re essentially offering services and support to Wal-Mart associates," Lavie told TNS.

Wade Rathke of the antipoverty group Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN), which is spearheading the WWA through its Wal-Mart organizing project, said many part-timers are paid so little they can collect unemployment. WWA will help Wal-Mart employees apply for unemployment if they are eligible in an effort to help the employees and shame the company into paying better.

With Wal-Mart avoiding paying the bills for many of its employee’s basic needs, taxpayers often pick up the tab.

According to several Wal-Mart workers in the WWA, recent changes which resulted in electronically produced schedules coming from Wal-Mart headquarters in Bentonville, Arkansas, have resulted in even more workers being cut from full time to part time.

"They can’t survive on what they’re being paid by the company," Rathke told TNS, adding that whether the WWA is technically a union is unimportant, but that "as more and more workers engage [Wal-Mart] around their rights, this company has no choice but to listen to them."

The public kickoff of the Wal-Mart Workers Association came on the first day of the Sitefighters conference, the first national gathering of some of the most successful anti-Wal-Mart activists in the US.

Held in St. Petersburg, Florida, organizers who have prevented Wal-Mart from opening stores in California, Illinois and other states traded ideas and best practices. Many prevailed in their hometown battles through land-use or zoning hearings, but mounted community-wide Wal-Mart opposition campaigns based on the sub-par wages and benefits paid by the massive company.

Wal-Mart often brags about how it brings new jobs into a community, but Reverend Robin Hood, an ACORN organizer who helped prevent a Wal-Mart from opening in Chicago, decried conditions under which "people that work for big-box companies can’t even afford to go to the doctor."

The ILRF lawsuit also addresses the effects Wal-Mart has had on workers in the US. It includes claims on behalf of California employees of Ralph’s and Safeway, who were told by their employers that they would have to take pay and benefit cuts so the stores could compete with Wal-Mart.

Under California law, if Wal-Mart advertising in which the company claims to be holding its suppliers to a code of conduct is found to be misleading, it could be ruled unfair competition.

Collingsworth hopes the plaintiffs can show they have suffered a specific economic injury as a result of Wal-Mart’s misrepresentations to the public about how its stores manage to maintain such low costs, saying the suit depending on "proving that Wal-Mart knows or should know that when it tells the public that its code of conduct is being honored, that in fact that’s not true."

Wal-Mart has yet to answer the complaint but has 20 days to do so.

While citizens in hundreds of towns across the country have fought to keep Wal-Mart stores from being built because of the traffic, noise and pollution that big-box stores create -- as well as the damage Wal-Mart does to nearby small businesses -- it seems that concern over labor practices are the criticism that is gaining the most public traction even among Wal-Mart’s supporters.

In June, four groups of Wal-Mart shareholders called on the company to set up an independent review of its legal and regulatory controls. They said Wal-Mart’s employment practices were causing concerns about negative effects on the company’s stock price and reputation.

A letter from representatives of the groups pointed out that the Immigration and Customs Enforcement raided 60 Wal-Mart stores as part of an investigation that resulted in an $11 million settlement of charges that Wal-Mart exploited undocumented immigrants; that Wal-Mart settled 24 violations of labor laws in three states with the Department of Labor; and that a federal court had certified the largest class-action employment discrimination suit ever, on behalf of 1.5 million current and former female employees alleging gender bias in promotions practices.

Wal-Mart has also come under fire as a result of its restricted employee healthcare coverage. "Wal-Mart doesn’t pay their associates enough to handle the [health insurance] coverage that they supposedly offer us," said Belva Witt, who has worked as a cashier for the past year and a half at a Wal-Mart in Brandon, FL. "And it’s not a coverage that’s worth having anyway."

With Wal-Mart avoiding paying the bills for many of its employee’s basic needs, taxpayers often pick up the tab. Staff at the Democratic Committee on Education and the Workforce found that one Wal-Mart store with 200 employees could cost federal taxpayers up to $420,750 per year, which averages out to about $2,103 per employee. Those costs stem from free and reduced lunches for employees’ children, Section 8 housing assistance, federal tax credits and deductions for low-income families, children’s healthcare programs, and low-income energy assistance.

"We have to get Wal-Mart’s attention," said Dave Newport, a former Alachua County, Florida county commissioner, who as a citizen has helped defeat five Wal-Mart proposals in the last few years. He claims a successful method is to convince government officials that voting down any particular proposed Wal-Mart store is not a vote against the chain-store, but a call for Wal-Mart to transform into a quality business that respects and benefits the community with more than just low prices and low-wage jobs.

Newport said people are sending a message to the $287 billon corporation that "We’re gonna beat you – and keep beating you – until you play by the rules and stop lying and start putting integrity into your product and business operations."

Send to Friends Respond to Editors or Reporter

The NewStandard ceased publishing on April 27, 2007.

Andrew Stelzer is a contributing journalist.

Recent contributions by Andrew Stelzer: