This Union Boss Rubs Elbows With Royalty But Still Gets Snubbed By Walmart

"They are viciously intolerant of somebody like me."

Amid all the talk of a new "industrial revolution" at the World Economic Forum last week, Philip Jennings saw plenty of old problems.

The general secretary for UNI Global Union -- which is part of the world's biggest trade group, the International Trade Union Confederation -- said the WEF gathering celebrated some titans of business that profit by impoverishing and mistreating huge portions of their workforces.

Consider these three examples, Jennings said in an interview with The Huffington Post in Davos, Switzerland: Employees at the massively wealthy Walmart toil long hours for pay so low that many depend on food stamps to supplement their paychecks; Uber, a rapidly growing transportation service, refuses to acknowledge the majority of its workforce as actual employees, probably because it hopes to replace them with machines in just a matter of time; the Internet retail behemoth Amazon aggressively spends money on new ventures, yet relies on an army of low-paid workers who face exhausting targets and little upward mobility. 

Back in the day, workers in these cases might have been aided in their fight for better pay and more just treatment by a union. But, after decades of decline, organized labor just hasn't made much impact on Walmart, Uber and Amazon. 


Jennings, whose group represents more than 20 million service workers in 150 countries, said those companies ought to improve treatment of workers if they want to continue to be lauded for sustainability or innovation.  

"We have to look at the behaviors of the companies concerned and we have to look at the consequences of their actions," Jennings told HuffPost's Jo Confino. "Ask them questions about behavior and consequences and say to them that there's another view on these businesses."

There's another view of business on the whole, too. A small-but-growing number of companies is pushing to take radical steps to win back public trust, in part by becoming more transparent and focusing on the well-being of their workers. 

But some large companies -- Walmart, Uber and Amazon included -- have dug trenches around policies that advocates say leave workers in poverty or without benefits to which they are entitled. Walmart has battled with labor organizers for years. Uber is in the midst of fighting a lawsuit filed by workers who say they are owed under California law compensation as employees, not as individual contractors. Amazon, already infamous for working conditions at its warehouses, is still reeling from a New York Times exposé into its harsh, quasi-dystopian office culture.

Unions have made little headway with these giants so far. But organized labor may be poised for a comeback. A wave of newsrooms at young, digital companies -- including The Huffington Post -- over past few months have generated fresh talks about the merits and possibility of organizing, even at companies where workers have seemed traditionally disadvantaged.

"My appeal to them is change direction and change course," Jennings said.

"If you want to be seen as No.1, if you want to be seen as sustainable, do what the Sustainable Development Goals say," he added, referring to targets laid out by the United Nations with the help of business leaders. These goals include providing decent jobs for people who need them. And Jennings may know a thing or two about ensuring that those jobs are, in fact, decent. 

But at least one company has shut him out completely. Walmart, he said, has repeatedly declined to meet with him, even when he requested an in-person visit at its headquarters in Bentonville, Arkansas.

"They are viciously intolerant of somebody like me," he said. "They refuse to meet me. I meet with presidents. I had a chat with the Queen of Holland the other day. ... We bumped into each other. I didn't know who she was, but we had a conversation. Walmart refused to talk to me."

Walmart did not respond to a request for comment. 

More from the World Economic Forum 2016: