labor How Walmart Persuades Its Workers Not to Unionize
One former Walmart store manager tells the story that after discovering a pro-union flyer in his store’s men’s room, he informed company headquarters and within 24 hours, an anti-union SWAT team flew to his store in a corporate jet. And when the meat department of a Walmart store in Texas became the retailer’s only operation in the United States to unionize, back in 2000, Walmart announced plans two weeks later to use prepackaged meat and eliminate butchers at that store and 179 others.
With 1.3 million U.S. employees—more than the population of Vermont and Wyoming combined—Walmart is by far the nation’s largest private-sector employer. It’s also one of the nation’s most aggressive anti-union companies, with a long history of trying to squelch unionization efforts. “People are scared to vote for a union because they’re scared their store will be closed,” said Barbara Gertz, an overnight Walmart stocker in Denver.
Walmart maintains a steady drumbeat of anti-union information at its more than 4,000 U.S. stores, requiring new hires—there are hundreds of thousands each year—to watch a video that derides organized labor. Indeed, Walmart’s anti-union campaign goes back decades: There was “Labor Relations and You at the Wal-Mart Distribution Center,” a 1991 guide aimed at beating back the Teamsters at its warehouses, and then in 1997 came “A Manager’s Toolbox to Remaining Union Free.” The first half of a statement in that toolbox has been repeatedly snickered at for being so egregiously false: “We are not anti-union; we are pro-associate.”
Early last year, Anonymous, a network of hacker activists, leaked two internal Walmart PowerPoint slideshows. One was a “Labor Relations Training” presentation for store managers that echoed the “Manager’s Toolbox” in suggesting that unions were money-grubbing outfits caring little about workers’ welfare. “Unions are a business, not a club or social organization—they want associates’ money,” the PowerPoint read. (Walmart confirmed the PowerPoints’ authenticity.) “Unions spend members’ dues money on things other than representing them,” it added.
Walmart is perfectly within its rights to communicate its stance to employees. While employers are legally barred from threatening store closures, layoffs, or loss of benefits because of unionization, they are free to tell workers why they oppose unions.
Walmart has battled for years against the United Food and Commercial Workers Union, which represents employees at many grocery stores and retailers, and its offshoot, OUR Walmart, an association of Walmart employees. Walmart insists that the UFCW is out to damage Walmart’s business. The second PowerPoint that Anonymous leaked last year attacked OUR Walmart, asking, “Is OUR Walmart/UFCW here to help you? Answer: NO.”
Tensions have risen between the retailer and OUR Walmart in recent years, with the labor group organizing nationwide protests outside hundreds of stores each Black Friday. The National Labor Relations Board issued a complaint in January of last year, accusing Walmart of illegally firing 19 OUR Walmart members and illegally disciplining more than 40 others after strikes and protests demanding higher pay. Walmart maintains that the firings and disciplining were legal and not in retaliation for protesting.
Getting a glimpse of Walmart’s internal PowerPoints and training manuals is rare, but one of Walmart’s orientation videos was leaked recently, and it again revealed Walmart’s anti-union efforts. Labor experts and Walmart employees say they were surprised at the blatant untruths in many of the video’s pro-company and anti-union statements.
Walmart confirmed the video’s authenticity and said the company showed it to new hires from 2009 through last year. Early on in the course of the video’s nine minutes, an actor dressed as a Walmart employee says, “You’re just beginning your career with us. It’s hard to grasp everything that’s available to you, like great benefits.”
Ken Jacobs, the chairman of the University of California, Berkeley’s Labor Center, suggested that this was essentially propaganda. “Walmart's benefits are well below the standard for union groceries,” he said. “They are not ‘great benefits’ by any standard.” A discounter like Walmart certainly doesn’t have the generous pensions or Cadillac health plans offered by some companies. Gertz, the overnight stocker in Denver, says her health plan is so stingy that she often doesn’t see a doctor when she’s sick because the deductible requires her to pay the first few thousand dollars out of pocket. Gertz said that when workers call in sick, their first day off comes out of their vacation days or personal days, not their paid sick days.
A spokesperson for Walmart says it will soon revamp its policy so that employees can use paid sick days starting on their first day out. The spokesperson added that its bonuses, 401(k) plan, and health plan are considerably better than at most other discounters—its 401(k) plan gives a dollar-for-dollar match for the first six percent of pay and the premium for its most popular health plan is just $21.90 every two weeks. That said, part-time workers, who represent nearly half its work force, don’t qualify for many of these benefits.
The leaked video also boasts, “There’s no retail company that offers more advancement and job security than Walmart.” Considering that some retailers are unionized with strong job-security provisions in their union contracts, some labor advocates wondered how Walmart could begin to assert that its job security is as strong as any other retailer’s.
“That’s patently false,” said Stuart Appelbaum, the president of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, a division of the UFCW. “At Walmart you can be fired for any reason at all or no reason.” He contrasted Walmart, one of the nation’s many “at-will” employers, with retailers that are unionized or partly unionized, including Costco, Macy’s, H&M and Modell’s. At unionized stores, workers can only be fired “for cause,” meaning managers need a strong reason to fire someone—for example, stealing from a store or arriving 30 minutes late five days in a row. Moreover, workers in those unionized stores can usually challenge their dismissal by bringing in an impartial arbitrator who helps determine whether a firing was justified.
Walmart, in its orientation video, makes other attempts at belittling unions. It features an actor who says, “I was a union member at my last job. Everyone actually had to join the union . . . The thing I remember most about the union is that they took dues money out of my paycheck before I ever saw it, just like taxes.” The character’s assertion that he “had to join the union” diverges from the truth. The Supreme Court ruled in 1963 that workers cannot be required to join the union at a unionized workplace—although they can be required to pay union dues or fees (unless they live in one of the 25 states with “right to work” laws).
In the video, an actress standing in front of a rack of produce continues to hammer the message. “I always thought that unions were kind of like clubs or charities that were out to help workers,” she says. “Well, I found out that wasn’t exactly the case. The truth is unions are businesses, multimillion-dollar businesses that make their money by convincing people like you and me to give them a part of our paychecks.”
Although some union leaders have generous salaries, Benjamin Sachs, a labor law professor at Harvard, said that unions aren’t for-profit businesses. “If unions are businesses, they’re the best example of the sharing economy we’ve seen,” Sachs said. “Here’s the business model: By sharing their resources, including their financial resources, workers make better lives for themselves and their families.” Thomas Kochan, an MIT professor of management, said that the phrase the actor uses—“clubs and charities”—“insults any new hire’s intelligence.” “Most people know what unions are and what they try to do,” Kochan said.
Indeed, one might ask, if unions are doing as little for workers as Walmart maintains, why then does Walmart bother to battle unions so aggressively? Walmart takes a far more jaundiced view of unions than do many Americans—for instance the nation’s Roman Catholic bishops. “The Church fully supports the right of workers to form unions or other associations to secure their rights to fair wages and working conditions,” the bishops once wrote in a pastoral letter, Economic Justice for All. And Pope John Paul II, never known as a raging liberal, called unions, “an indispensable element of social life.”
Brian Nick, a Walmart spokesman, explained why the company made the video. “The core reason to have the training and information on video, in and of itself, is we know that third-party groups often reach out to our associates,” he said. “This is an opportunity for us to provide accurate information that gives our associates knowledge about their work environment and their own rights as associates.”
In boasting about Walmart, the video says, “Walmart jobs are flexible jobs, giving associates the opportunity to balance our personal life with our worklife.” But Carrie Gleason, director of the Fair Workweek Initiative at the Center for Popular Democracy, an advocacy group, strongly disagreed. “I’ve spoken with countless Walmart associates who talk about how erratic their work schedules are, about how managers regularly disregard their requests for basic accommodations so they can go to school or take care of their families,” she said. Some Walmart workers say their stores slashed their hours when they asked managers to accommodate their college schedule or their efforts to hold a second job to make ends meet.
Brian Nick, the Walmart spokesman, said the company was improving its scheduling practices. Beginning next year, it will offer some employees fixed schedules each week—many employees complain that their work schedules change vastly week-to-week.
In urging workers to shun unions, the Walmart video says, “In recent years, union organizers have spent a lot of time, effort and money trying to convince Walmart associates to join a union, all without any success.” But that’s not quite true. The UFCW hasn’t sought to persuade Walmart employees to join a union in recent years, although it did help form OUR Walmart to push for better wages and working conditions. OUR Walmart claimed a victory in February when Walmart announced it would raise its base pay to $9 this year and $10 next year. A spokesperson for Walmart said it was responding to a tighter labor market and boasted that the move would mean raises for 500,000 workers.
The Walmart video is correct about at least one thing: Most of the recent unionization votes at Walmart stores in the U.S. were unsuccessful. For example, the tire and lube workers at two Walmart stores, in Colorado and Pennsylvania, voted overwhelmingly in 2005 against unionizing. But the UFCW had a big success in 2004, when it unionized a Walmart in Jonquiere, Quebec—a first in North America. Walmart closed that store shortly afterward, and Canada’s Supreme Court ultimately ruled that the shutdown was an illegal ploy to avoid having a union. Walmart has long argued that it closed the Jonquiere store because it was unprofitable and that the closing had nothing to do with the union. As for Walmart’s decision to suddenly begin using prepackaged meat after that meat department in Texas unionized in 2000, the company said that the timing was just a coincidence and that the decision had nothing to do with unionization.
This past April, Walmart abruptly announced it was closing its store in Pico Rivera, California, along with four other stores, for six months. Many workers saw that as a daunting anti-union statement—the Pico Rivera store has the nation’s most militant OUR Walmart chapter, having staged a sit-in and numerous other protests. Walmart, however, insisted that the closing was necessitated by “ongoing plumbing issues.”
Steven Greenhouse is the author of "The Big Squeeze: Tough Times for the American Worker" and a former labor and workplace reporter for The New York Times.