By  on August 22, 2005

BOSTON — Organized labor is taking its drive to organize Wal-Mart global.

The Union Network International, a European labor federation representing 900 unions, will join with domestic unions in Chicago today to address a worldwide strategy for organizing workers at the $285 billion company.

"There is no division between American unions and unions all around the world," UNI spokesman Noel Howell said. "We all want the world's biggest corporation to behave."

Organized labor has failed to make any inroads at a Wal-Mart store in the U.S. The retailer, citing unfavorable business conditions, closed a store in Jonquière, Quebec, shortly after employees voted for union representation. Critics have said that Wal-Mart does not provide adequate pay and benefits, accusations the company denies.

The push to organize globally is "on the cutting edge of the labor movement to innovate collective bargaining agreements that cut across national borders," said Dan Cornfield, a Vanderbilt University professor and labor expert. The service sector, which includes retailers, is "the new emerging source of economic power" and the frontier for organizing, he added.

With union membership dwindling to roughly 10 percent of the U.S. workforce, Cornfield said unions need to "win a major campaign to help revitalize the movement."

Last month, the AFL-CIO lost about one-third of its members when the United Food and Commercial Workers, the Teamsters and the Service Employees International Union decided to disaffiliate. The unions will be among those represented at a weeklong conference hosted by UNI.

The focus will be on how to recruit workers who have historically been unrepresented: part-time workers, immigrants, women and contract laborers, who make up a disproportionate percentage of Wal-Mart's hourly labor force, Howell said.

Beth Keck, spokeswoman for Wal-Mart international, defended the company's record with its estimated 600,000 workers outside the U.S.

"We've been considered a model employer in a lot of countries," she said. "We suggest that people talk to our associates and look at our record in terms of wages and benefits. People are happy working for us."

Keck said she did not know how many Wal-Mart associates outside the U.S. are unionized. The Bentonville, Ark.-based retailer has dealings with unions, labor associations and/or work councils in Argentina, Brazil, Mexico, Germany, the U.K. and Canada, Keck said.Richard Hastings, senior retail analyst with Bernard Sands, said the global labor strategy is "another pressure point" for Wal-Mart.

"My intuition is that the initial impact will be marginal, but it represents another significant risk to their total operating cost structure at a time when transportation costs and borrowing costs have risen so much," he said.

Wal-Mart's international operation generated $56.2 billion in revenue last year and is the company's fastest-growing sector.

UNI members have recently met with labor groups in Russia, where Wal-Mart has not opened, and China, where the retailer is expanding rapidly. Wal-Mart has said it would allow government-sponsored trade unions in its stores in China, although none has unionized so far.

On Tuesday, UNI faxed a letter to Wal-Mart chief executive officer H. Lee Scott asking for a meeting to discuss labor standards. The group has signed labor standards agreements with several large multinational retailers, including Carrefour, Metro AG and H&M.

Keck said she had not seen the letter.

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