Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Rattling Wal-Mart's cage

Got a Wal-Mart in your city, town, village or hamlet?

I know. Who doesn't?

Wal-Mart is everywhere.

On May 3rd, 2004, US Vice-President Dick Cheney, after making some funny about how he met his wife, said this about Wal-Mart.
This is one of our nation's great companies, and one of the most familiar names in all of America. The story of Wal-Mart exemplifies some of the very best qualities in our country -- hard work, the spirit of enterprise, fair dealing, and integrity.

Sam Walton opened his first store more than four decades ago with the goal of providing friendly service and affordable shopping for his community. Through Sam's vision, his energy, and his decency, Wal-Mart grew into one of America's largest and most generous companies. And for his contribution to America, Sam was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom -- the highest honor a civilian can receive.

It was enough to gag a maggot. At the time Cheney was singing the praises of Sam Walton and his discount retail behemoth, the average worker in both US and Canadian Wal-Marts was making less than $8 per hour.

Wal-Mart may be Cheney's idea of a great company but it falls far short of that description in the eyes of all too many employees or "associates". To most who work at Wal-Mart, the wages are so low that fewer than 45% of US Wal-Mart employees are even able to afford the company's health care plan. In Canada, where health care is universal and paid for through taxes, Wal-Mart enjoys the advantage of not having to match employee contributions while still paying near minimum wage for a huge number of employees.

Wal-Mart is more than an 800 pound gorilla. In the US there are 4022 Wal-Mart or Sam's Club operations. In Canada there are 278 Wal-Mart locations, although there should be 279.

Wal-Mart has managed to resist a unionized labour force and has employed all method of intimidation and tactics to keep unions out of their North American operations. It is a part of the Wal-Mart corporate culture and it is probably why the town of Jonquiere, Quebec will never have another Wal-Mart again.

When Sylvie Lavoie had taken enough abuse, had been denied advancement too often and had discovered the massive inequities in pay among peers she led a workers' revolt that resulted in the United Food and Commercial Workers union attempting to organize the workers and bring in union representation. First efforts failed. However, in an event which would turn the heads of those who had voted against certification, store management stood out in public and cheered while hurling insults at union activists.

Three months later, with Wal-Mart management asleep at the switch, Lavoie managed to collect enough signatures on union cards to have the UFCW automatically certified as the Wal-Mart employees' union in Jonquiere. Wal-Mart should have known it would happen. Jonquiere is a blue-collar town surrounded by unionized aluminum and wood mills, and the province of Quebec has the strongest union representation in Canada.

Two months later an intransigent Wal-Mart sat through labour negotiations offering precisely nothing and compromising on no major issue. The UFCW, this time, should have seen what was coming. The company firmly holding their ground, ignoring the union's demands, did not fear a withdrawal of labour. They announced that the Jonquiere Wal-Mart was not profitable.

On February 9th, 2005, Wal-Mart made an announcement that sent shockwaves throughout the Wal-Mart archipelago. The company announced the closure of the Jonquiere store. Wal-Mart, both at the Canadian head-office and the corporate head-office in Bentonville, Arkansas, said the closure had nothing to do with the unionization of the workforce. No one believed them, least of all 90 percent of Canadians who started calling the Wal-Mart corporate leaders dishonest. (Actually, "liar" was used a lot.) It didn't matter. The message was clear to all Wal-Mart employees in Canada and the US: If you try to organize the punishment will be unemployment.

It didn't matter because Wal-Mart was within their rights under Quebec law to shut down the Jonquiere store, providing they never tried to open another one - ever.

On February 6th, Wal-Mart in the United States became the subject of a class-action suit which could involve 1.6 million women claiming discrimination on the basis of sex with relation to wage and benefit inequities. Plus there was the odd case of sexual harassment thrown in - allegedly by a company that has an anti-dating policy among employees.

Wal-Mart tried to impose that strict anti-dating, no flirting policy in Germany only to learn that such employment practice is illegal there. They also proved that the success of discount operations in North America does not equal diligent market research in Europe. Wal-Mart, forced by law to deal with German labour unions and having sent American product managers to stock German stores, found that Germans didn't want what Wal-Mart had to offer. Like the fiasco in Jonquiere, Wal-Mart had not taken into account all the factors of the area. When they tried to impose longer working hours on their German staff, they were flatly rejected by the union.

In July of 2006 Wal-Mart announced they were pulling out of the German market. This time, however, rather than just shut down locations, they sold them to a German retail company. Once again, Wal-Mart has displayed an intense allergy to an empowered workforce.

It gives little for North American Wal-Mart workers to hope for. A company whose five heirs are worth $20 billion each, and which made $11.2 billion in profits in 2006, paying the CEO in excess of $11 million annually can't see its way clear to pay its employees a decent living wage.

However, there is one person who is working to make a difference. Blue Gal highlights the efforts of Andy Stern, president of the Service Employees International Union. Stern isn't trying to organize Wal-Mart employees; he's going for a whole new labour model.

And, he's going after Wal-Mart.

No comments: