It’s déjà vu all over again at Wal-Mart. Returning to its customary practice of using intimidation to respond to demands for improved working conditions, the company recently began firing some of the “associates” who participated in strikes at its stores. Other workers are being disciplined under the pretext of violating Wal-Mart’s attendance policy.
While this is bad news for the workers affected, the use of heavy-handed tactics is a sign that the company is worried about the historic job actions that have been spreading through its U.S. operations. If Wal-Mart really believed its claims that the OUR Walmart group spearheading the protests has limited support among the company’s massive workforce, then it would be ignoring the movement rather than desperately trying to squelch it.
The current wave of firings is actually an escalation of repressive policies that the company has been implementing since OUR Walmart began ramping up its campaign in 2011. A report released in May by American Rights at Work found that the company has been responding to the activism by disguising acts of retaliation as legitimate discipline or routine enforcement of company policy. Accusing Wal-Mart of fostering a “climate of fear,” the report also documented ways in which the company violated federal labor law by denying OUR Walmart members and organizers access for protected concerted activity.
Such actions continue a tradition of anti-union animus that has characterized Wal-Mart since its earliest years. While some have sought to romanticize founder Sam Walton and pin the blame for the company’s notorious labor policies on his successors, it was Sam himself who first brought in union-busting consultants when some members of his then much smaller workforce began to talk about organizing in the 1970s. The investment paid off for management. For example, after about half of the workers at a Wal-Mart warehouse in Searcy, Arkansas signed cards in support of Teamsters representation in the early 1980s, the consultants used the run-up to the election to scare the workforce into ultimately voting more than three-to-one against the union.
This scenario would play out again and again, both in the United States and Canada. For example, in 1997 the Ontario Labor Relations Board ruled that Wal-Mart had violated Canadian law by intimidating workers in the period preceding a representation election involving the United Steelworkers union. As a result, the board certified the Steelworkers, even though a majority of workers had voted against the union. The company, however, simply refused to bargain with the union.
In 2000 a small group of courageous meatcutters at a Wal-Mart Supercenter in Jacksonville, Texas voted for representation by the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW). Within two weeks, the company announced that it was shutting down the meatcutting operations at that store and at more than 175 more in six states. The NLRB later ruled that the company had violated federal labor law by refusing to discuss the closing with the workers who had chosen union representation, but the issue was by then moot.
In 2001 the UFCW said it was launching a national organizing drive at Wal-Mart, but it focused on a few areas such as Las Vegas, where it engaged in a fierce battle with a slew of anti-union specialists flown in from corporate headquarters in Bentonville, Arkansas. Years later, the NLRB found that the company had engaged in various unfair labor practices, but by then the organizing effort had fizzled out. Looking back on the situation, the Las Vegas Sun published an article headlined WAL-MART BREAKS THE LAW, GETS PUNISHED, WINS ANYWAY.
Wal-Mart’s labor relations practices have been so egregious that they go beyond regulatory infractions and enter the realm of human rights abuses. It’s thus no surprise that Human Rights Watch, which typically analyzes atrocities in dictatorial governments, once published a report concluding Wal-Mart violated the right of its workers to freedom of association.
The problem for current Wal-Mart management is that its workers are more difficult to intimidate than they were in the past. Organizing efforts used to be limited to single locations; now OUR Walmart, using non-traditional tactics, is operating in many places and can mobilize large numbers of people, as seen in last year’s Black Friday job actions as well as the recent strikes and the protests at the company’s annual meeting.
One way Wal-Mart management is responding to the growing solidarity is by increasing its use of a category of worker it believes it can more readily control: temps. The company traditionally used such contingent workers only during the holiday season. Recently there have been reports that some Wal-Mart stores are hiring only temps.
So much for those TV ads that sought to portray a job at Wal-Mart as the stepping-stone to a career.