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Union-Backed Group Taking on Wal-Mart

NEW YORK — Contending that Wal-Mart Stores’ intense focus on cutting costs and steamrolling its competitors is jeopardizing the future of the American middle class, an alliance of unions and other social activists calling itself the...

NEW YORK — Contending that Wal-Mart Stores’ intense focus on cutting costs and steamrolling its competitors is jeopardizing the future of the American middle class, an alliance of unions and other social activists calling itself the People’s Campaign for Justice at Wal-Mart is kicking off a major campaign today to get the retailer to change its ways.

This story first appeared in the November 21, 2002 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

Their logic is that if they can change the behemoth of Bentonville, Ark. — the nation’s largest private employer with more than 1 million people — they can influence the retail and service sectors.

“The jobs that made America a working middle-class country are almost gone. Children today are not going to be better off than their parents — or even their grandparents,” said Doug Dority, president of the United Food & Commercial Workers International Union, which has been trying for several years to unionize Wal-Mart facilities. “The jobs of the 21st century are most likely to be low wage, no benefits and high turnover — a revolving door into a poverty-level labor market. The jobs of the 21st century are more likely to be at Wal-Mart than at any other company.”

The AFL-CIO, of which the UFCW is a member, is spearheading the campaign.

A UFCW spokeswoman said Wal-Mart hourly workers on average earn $3 to $4 an hour less than their counterparts at unionized major supermarket chains.

The campaigners will bring a six-point agenda to 100 Wal-Mart stores in 40 states today. Their demands are that the company pay better wages and offer affordable health benefits, make its stores safer for workers and customers, follow fair business practices, offer equal treatment for all workers and customers, cease to buy goods from countries that allow the use of child or slave labor and respect the rights of workers and customers to express their opinions on the chain.

A Wal-Mart spokeswoman said the claim that the firm is endangering the middle class “couldn’t be further form the truth.”

“Wal-Mart is competitive in both our wages and benefits,” she said. “We are a very large employer and a very fast-growing company. It would not make good business sense for us not to offer competitive salaries and good benefits when we’re recruiting talented staff every day.”

A key claim of the campaign is that Wal-Mart’s wages make it difficult for workers to afford health insurance. Dority said the average Wal-Mart worker makes $8.50 an hour and works a 32-hour week, which would work out to $554 before taxes every two weeks. The Wal-Mart spokeswoman declined to confirm or deny those numbers, saying that the company’s wages vary.

She did, however, take issue with Dority’s claim that it costs Wal-Mart workers $192.05 every two weeks to buy health insurance for themselves and their families. She said the company’s preferred provider organization option costs from $48.50 to $86.50 per pay period, depending on the number of dependents covered.

Another issue is Wal-Mart’s aggressive anti-unionization tactics. The National Labor Relations Board has upheld two complaints against Wal-Mart’s response to organizing drives in states including Texas and Ohio in the past 13 months, according to an NLRB spokesman. In total, 28 complaints have been issued against the retailer. Seven were settled and 18 are pending. One complaint was thrown out.

By comparison, only six complaints were issued by the NLRB against Wal-Mart between September 2000 and September 2001, according to the spokesman.

The allegations against Wal-Mart contained in the complaints include claims that the company interrogated employees about union activity; dismissed employees because of union activity; withheld promotions; reduced wages; solicited employee grievances by intervening in union activities and offering to help, and threatening employees.

The Wal-Mart spokeswoman described the cases in which complaints have been upheld as “regrettable” and “isolated.”

Wal-Mart employment represents more than one-third of all U.S. jobs in the general-merchandise store sector tracked by the Labor Department. According to Labor’s recent figures, general merchandise employment stood at 2.8 million workers in October.