February 28, 2005
The story about the failed organizing drive at the Loveland, Colorado, Wal-Mart lube shop is almost tragic.
The felicitously named Joshua Noble, the snowboarder who took on the world's largest private employer, managed to create a major stir with his campaign for a union. But in the end, he was no match for Wal-Mart, which has a team of corporate "human resources" employees whose job is to fly around the country in corporate jets, intimidating low-wage employees wherever there is the slightest whisper of labor-union activity.
It's the story of the little guy who lost. Noble, who has epilepsy, had a seizure on the day of the vote and couldn't fulfill his role as election observer. The company refused to let anyone take his place. It was the denouement of a long fight, in which Wal-Mart transferred six anti-union workers into the Loveland shop, and bombarded the workers there with anti-union propaganda. The employees who voted against unionization got the message. Not that they agreed with Wal-Mart's depiction of unions as greedy, feckless organizations that just take workers' dues, or felt the company was giving them a fair deal. They told the New York Times (http://www.times.com/2005/02/26/politics/26walmart.html) they were unhappy with their wages, benefits, and working conditions. But as Alicia Sylvia, who makes less than $9 an hour and can't afford the company's health insurance, put it, "The message we got was, 'you're a small bunch of guys, and you can stand out there and strike, and we're going to replace you.'"
Intimidation, strong-arming, and flagrant unfair labor practices are company policy at Wal-Mart. When big suppliers can be bludgeoned into slashing prices and moving production overseas, no wonder single moms who need their jobs and immigrant workers who clean up at night feel outgunned by the retail behemoth.
Fortunately, there is also some good news in the battle against Wal-Mart. Residents of Queens, New York, just beat back an effort to open a new big box store there. And small towns around the country have held off Wal-Marts here and there.
Al Norman, one of Wal-Mart's biggest enemies, has written a book on how to fight Wal-Mart in you local community, and explains on his web site (http://www.sprawl-busters.com/caseagainstsprawl.html) how the company is hurting America. Enemies of sprawl have been more successful than Wal-Mart's workers in their battles against the company.
The problem, as Robert Reich points out in today's New York Times, is that the biggest struggle Americans have is not with Wal-Mart, but with themselves. As citizens who want to live in decent communities with thriving downtowns, we oppose Wal-Mart. But as consumers, we flock to low-price, predatory big box stores.
Places like TJ Maxx and Marshall's profit from the liquidation of smaller retailers that pay higher rents and charge higher prices because of their downtown location and small size. It's a perfect business plan: Undercut these little shops, then sell their remaining inventory when they go belly up. More and more of us, even if we like our local mom and pop businesses, drive out to the edge of town, vulture-like, to pick over their remains and snap up the "great deals."
Over the long term, we are helping to create a meaner, uglier country.
So hurray for Joshua Noble, for having the guts to stand against the tide. And more power to the coalition of interests that manage to beat back Wal-Marts locally around the country.
The best solution, as Robert Reich suggests, is to enact and enforce labor, environmental, and other regulation so as to put a break on unfettered corporate greed. But as long as this administration is in power, citizen activism, union activism, and consumer boycotts are the tools we have at hand.
Ruth Conniff is Political Editor of The Progressive. Her blog will run every Monday.