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Working for Wal-Mart, Part Three

By Kevin Robinson in News on Mar 15, 2010 5:20PM

Outside the Wal-Mart in Orland Hills, IL, by Clean Wal-Mart.

As part of our on-going coverage of Wal-Mart’s attempt to break into the Chicago retail market, we take a look today at the company’s employment practices in the Chicago metropolitan area. Chicagoist met up with three Wal-Mart employees to talk to them about their jobs, company policy, and why they work there. Check out parts one and two of this story.

I asked Rosetta Brown, Roslyn Landfair and Linda Haluska why Wal-Mart workers hadn’t started a union at work, given how hard it seems to be to work there. “95 percent of them are scared,” Roslyn says. “They scared that they don’t want to lose their jobs. Believe me, I’ve never seen so many scared people. A lot of them been there since the store was open, some that’s been there 10 years, and they’re just so scared. It’s not like they have, you know, college educations, it’s been their first job and they making quality money, so why go?” Linda nods in agreement. “So they stay there, there’s no place else to go. If they go, they gonna make $7.50, $8 an hour.”

“A lot of them are afraid that they’re going to close the store,” Linda says. "Because they did close a store.” Wal-Mart closed its store in Jonquière, Quebec Canada in 2005 after workers there joined the United Food and Commercial Workers union. That Wal-Mart employees in suburban Chicago know this five years later is a testament to the company's efforts to ensure that its employees don’t sign union cards.

Wal-Mart uses a subtle but effective form of union busting to keep their employees from organizing. It starts with showing anti-union videos as part of new employee orientation. A requirement of all employees is that they must attend mandatory “continuing education” meetings, featuring videos produced by corporate headquarters. Rosetta and Linda told me about the videos the company makes employees watch. “Our [store] had never used a demo person [in a video]," Rosetta told me. "A demo person is the ones that just lost they jobs - you wear black pants, white shirt and a white hair net…. They added a new [video] saying watch out for this person, if they talking out against the company, they might be crazy. And they showed a person wearing black pants, a white shirt and a white hair net. And it was like watch out for a worker like that she might be crazy!” Rosetta says that when that video came out, her coworkers were telling her she had to go see it, because they felt she was the one being portrayed.

Wal-Mart's anti-union videos are closely guarded by the company. But a few years ago a two-minute video produced by Paul French and Partners, a PR firm hired to do labor relations video production for Wal-Mart, was leaked onto the internet.

“When people first started hearing more about the union [at our store], and management first caught wind of it, that was when we were bombarded with these union videos," Linda told me. "They were mandatory that we had to go see them. So they actually called us off the floor, like in two groups, to come watch these videos. And at the same time they had someone that flew in from corporate office. To reinforce, or support the idea that having a union was not in the best interest of the employees - not letting us make that decision, but making that decision for us.”

Showing anti-union videos to employees isn’t a new tactic - federal labor laws permit employers to hold “captive audience meetings” where management is free to hold mandatory meetings where they make speeches against unionization, for example, or show videos of strikes. And while Wal-Mart has worked hard to keep its anti-union program from public eyes, a set of labor relations manuals published by the mega-retailer in the early 1990’s was obtained by the United Food and Commercial Workers union and published on the internet. Though containing over a hundred pages of practice and policy, the corporation’s philosophy is clear in this single passage:

“Wal-Mart is opposed to unionization of its associates. Any suggestion that the Company is neutral on the subject or that it encourages associates to join labor organizations is not true. The Company believes its associates in the stores, offices and warehouses are better off without a labor organization because the Company pays wages and fringe benefits which equal or exceed those prevailing for similar work in the communities where the facilities are located. In addition, the Company maintains a program of training, promotion and job security which recognizes an associate's skill, ability, and length of service. Moreover, the Company provides excellent working conditions for its associates and has an excellent system of redressing complaints of associates. We firmly believe we are capable of running our own Company without any assistance from an outside third party.”

Generally speaking, most companies prefer not to have to deal with employee unions if they don’t have to. The reasons for this vary, both by industry and philosophy, but can be boiled down to the perception of increased labor costs and the loss of some control over how a business is managed. The National Labor Relations Act, which governs the rights and responsibilities of parties to a union labor agreement, requires employers to negotiate with employees or their representatives over wages, benefits and other working conditions. While the law doesn’t guarantee that employees will see better wages or working conditions, the presence of a union, at least in a portion of an employer’s facilities, tends to have a ripple effect on raising wages and improving benefits.

Costco, a key competitor of Wal-Mart’s, starts new employees at around $11 an hour, not much difference from Wal-Mart. After four years, however, the average Wal-Mart employee will earn just over $12 an hour, while the average Costco employee will be earning $19.50 an hour. Health benefits at Costco are also among the best in the business - employees pay about 12 percent of the costs out of pocket, compared to 40 percent out of pocket for the average Wal-Mart employee. What gives? Part of it is Costco’s corporate culture of treating employees well. But part of it can be chalked up to boring, old unionization. About 11 percent of Costco employees - on both the East and West costs of the U.S. - belong to the Teamsters union, which helps set the tone for wages and benefits in Costco stores nationally. Other big players in the retail grocery industry have collective bargaining agreements with their workforce as well, such as Meijer, Supervalu, and Albertson’s, all of which drive wages, benefits and working conditions in other stores in their respective labor markets. In fact, in an interview with PBS's Frontline, a former Wal-Mart manager who had worked in unionized Meijer stores said that the presence of the union had the effect of “professionalizing” the workplace and the store's dealings with its employees.

Lack of access to employer-sponsored health benefits leaves vast numbers of Wal-Mart employees around the nation to depend on state and federal health insurance programs for primary medical care. And there was the claim by the women that the reduction in hours that employees are scheduled and able to work leads to workers depending on food stamps. Unionization of Wal-Mart stores could lead to requirements that employees be given a certain number of hours to work each week (as is the case with the UFCW representation of Jewel stores), or access to affordable group health insurance, eliminating the cycle of dependency on welfare that Wal-Mart employees find themselves stuck in.

But Wal-Mart has made indoctrinating their employees against joining a union part of the culture of the company. Aside from regularly showing anti-union videos, they also maintain a well-organized set of front-line managers to harass, interrogate and threaten employees that might be trying to get organized. Documented cases of such practices in the Chicago region don’t appear to exist, as a serious union organizing drive has yet to materialize in a local Wal-Mart. But a 2007 case study by Human Rights Watch looked pretty extensively at the corporation’s actions in Greely, Colorado and Kingman, Arizona, both the site of serious attempts by employees to join the UFCW.

Wal-Mart Supercenter at night, by Dystopos.
Wal-Mart maintains a national union hotline that supervisors are instructed to call at any hint that the employees in a given facility might be considering joining a union. Teams of professional union busters are then sent from Bentonville, Arkansas to thwart any attempt by employees to organize. In both Greely and Kingman, the company’s labor relations team was deployed to the stores.

In the Greely store, Wal-Mart quickly escalated attempts to convince employees that they didn’t need union representation, and that things would drastically change for the worse in the store if the employees joined the UFCW. In Kingman, the decision to join a union never came to a vote, even after the UFCW filed several unfair labor practice charges against the company. Three years later, an administrative law judge ruled that Wal-Mart had violated the law, including surveilling union supporters, denying raises during the organizing drive and threatening employees with the loss of company benefits if they supported the union, and firing a union supporter in the store. In spite of the labor board's ruling, the Kingman Wal-Mart remains non-union.

I asked the women why they stay, given everything they’ve encountered. Linda likes the money she earns and the work she does. But most importantly for her family, the job works for her. “I work nights, because my husband works days as a teacher, and we have two kids. It’s more of a hassle for me to work days, because when the kids get sick, one of us has to call off. So it’s easier to change shifts, if they have doctor appointments, and I can take them to the doctor appointments without having to miss school.” She added, “I like what it is that I do, I just don’t like the way it’s managed. That’s what makes it very difficult. The way management dictates on how the work should be done - it’s like ‘we have a time frame we want you to get it done within this amount of this time.’ And sometimes it’s not really possible to get it done within the time frame they’re asking us to get it done in. I think more or less it’s what their expectations are, not so much what’s possible.”

Talking to Rosetta, I get the impression that she enjoys her coworkers, and that having a place in the business gives her a sense of purpose, even if she doesn’t like working at Sam’s Club. She says stays because she feels like somebody has to stand up for her co-workers. “I kind of stand up for the workers. I just feel like they need me here because they don’t have nobody else here to speak up for them. And it helps, the hours that I work, to pay my rent.”

For Roslyn, she’s had it with Wal-Mart. “I am [classified as eligible] for a re-hire. I can go back to Wal-Mart any day. I have no intention of going back to Wal-Mart, because I would never put myself in that situation again. I would never” work for them again.

Coming out of my interviews with these women, I’m struck by a profound sense of how grim working for Wal-Mart can be. In spite of all of this, though, people continue to work there, apply for jobs there and shop there. Wal-Mart is such a behemoth, both in the retail market and in the popular consciousness that it's easy to forget that real people actually work there. We hear all the horror stories - the class-action lawsuits, the litany of bad press - but there's not a face that's connected to those stories. Talking with Linda, Roslyn and Rosetta, what I came away with was a sense that what they’re looking for is an opportunity, an opportunity for something better. The chance to earn a higher wage, to have some say over how they can balance work and life, and the freedom to not be overworked and locked in the stores overnight, or fear termination because they’d been hurt at work or been there too long.

There’s no union that can make retail grocery work a wonderful, easy job. It’s tough work in a competitive business that deals with a fickle consumer. But if retail workers had the chance to control at least part of their destiny at work, to have a say for themselves what direction they wanted their careers to take, Wal-Mart would have the potential to be the ideal job opportunity that the corporation promises prospective employees.