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Wal-Mart's Anti-Union Threats Lead to Backlash, Call for Federal Probe

Wal-Mart may have inadvertently done workers a big favor with its threats that a Democratic victory in November could lead to passage of a new law making organizing unions easier.
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Wal-Mart may have inadvertently done workers a big favor with its threats that a Democratic victory in November could lead to passage of a new law making organizing unions easier. Now progressive media and cable shows are giving the right to unionize greater attention, and a petition drive has been launched by pro-union groups asking the Federal Election Commission to investigate Wal-Mart for illegal electioneering ( a charge the company denies.)

The Wall Street Journal reported last week that the company held mandatory meetings for supervisors and store managers warning that a Democratic and Obama victory could lead to passage of an Employee Free Choice Act; the company claimed the law could cost workers their jobs and lead to heavy union dues.

In fact, Wal-Mart is the poster child for union-busting and its own abuses perfectly illustrate why the law is so desperately needed. Wal-Mart's behavior reflects a broader corporate hostility to unions that's helping to drag down workers' earnings and health care benefits, as I discovered when I wrote last year about going undercover to a union-busting seminar. And As Michael Whitney of American Rights at Work observed on Firedog Lake:

Unfortunately for Wal-Mart workers, this kind of intimidation is nothing new. It's actually part and parcel for Wal-Mart's business plan. When Wal-Mart employees stand up for themselves and try to form a union, they face threats, propaganda, discrimination, intimidation, and even firings in retaliation.

What Wal-Mart is doing for November's political elections is what it, and hundreds of other anti-union companies, do all the time when workers say they want a union: initimidating them to go against their own self-interests.

Wal-Mart's concerns about a pro-union Democratic victory are echoed by other companies seeking to oppose any legislation or initiative that might conceivably help workers. The Hill reported this week:

Business leaders say a Democratic sweep of the presidency and key Senate contests this fall could lead to major changes in U.S. labor law.

Business has viewed the Senate as a bulwark to bills backed by the AFL-CIO and other labor groups since Democrats took over Congress in 2006. Measures making it easier to form unions and strengthening the rights of workers to sue for discriminatory pay practices have passed the House. But they have not been able to win the votes necessary to move forward in the Senate.

Even if they had, a final bastion remained: President Bush's veto pen.

Next year, however, the dynamics could change dramatically if Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) wins the presidency and Democrats edge closer to the 60 votes necessary to break a Senate filibuster.

"This is one of the most important elections the business community faces," said Bill Miller, a senior vice president at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

"If the Republicans lose four or five seats [in the Senate] some of the labor measures probably will succeed over the minority's wishes," said Jade West, senior vice president of government relations at the National Association of Wholesalers-Distributors...

But the issue business leaders most often mention in worried tones is the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA), which would make it easier for workers to form unions by eliminating a requirement that unions be launched via a secret ballot vote.

A business coalition is already running ads in Maine and Minnesota, where it touts Sen. Norm Coleman's (R-Minn.) opposition to the bill. Coleman is in a tough contest with Democrat Al Franken, who, like most Democratic Senate candidates, is supporting EFCA.

On top of all that, major business lobbying groups are launching a multi-billion-dollar TV and propaganda effort to convince the public and workers that the proposed law would somehow deny workers the right to a fair election. In truth, as the American Rights at Work organization points out, these groups are peddling myths in order to squelch workers' rights:

Business special interest groups have launched a $160 million campaign to derail reform of the nation's broken labor law system by lying about the Employee Free Choice Act. Their only line of attack - that the bill somehow takes away so-called "secret ballot" elections for joining a union - is blatantly false.

The Employee Free Choice Act not only strengthens the current process for workers forming unions, but also provides for a more fair and democratic method for men and women to join unions.
Here are the facts to refute the opposition's fiction about the Employee Free Choice Act:

Fiction: The "legislation would end the rights of employees to secret ballot elections."- Center for Union Facts

FACT: The Employee Free Choice Act does not abolish elections or "secret ballots."

Under the proposed legislation, workers get to choose the union formation process--elections or majority sign-up. Under current law, the choice to recognize a union rests only with employers. What the Employee Free Choice Act does prevent is an employer manipulating the flawed system to influence the election outcome. When faced with organizing campaigns: 25 percent of employers illegally fire pro-union workers; 51 percent of employers illegally threaten to close down worksites if the union prevails; and, 34 percent of employers coerce workers into opposing the union with bribes and favoritism.

Fiction: "Legal recognition of a union has traditionally been achieved through secret ballot elections...just like how a person votes for a senator or congressman." - Center for Union Facts

FACT: Current union elections involving "secret ballots" bear no resemblance to political elections.

Workers' free speech rights are squelched, employers practice various forms of economic coercion, and labor law allows employers to indefinitely delay recognition through drawn-out appeals. Says University of Oregon political scientist Gordon Lafer: "The presence of secret ballots can't overcome the corrupt nature of NLRB elections ."

Fiction: NLRB elections are "the only way to guarantee worker protection from coercion and intimidation."- Coalition for a Democratic Workplace

FACT: Workers are more susceptible to coercion in NLRB elections than majority sign-up. Workers in NLRB elections are twice as likely (46 percent vs. 23 percent) as those in majority sign-up campaigns to report that management coerced them to oppose the union. Further, less than one in 20 workers (4.6 percent) who signed a card with a union organizer reported that the presence of the organizer made them feel pressured to sign the card.

Now, thanks to Wal-Mart over-the-top intimidation, there's greater awareness of the pernicious impact of such lies, and how fair treatment of workers in a troubled economy could be helped by the law Wal-Mart so vigorously opposes. And that's why there's a petition drive underway to gather a million signatures to get the next Congress to finally pass this long-overdue law.

It's small wonder that Wal-Mart is working so hard against the bill. As Andy Stern, the president of SEIU, observed:

"Wal-Mart's decision to use valuable resources to discourage its workers from joining a union should surprise no one. What is astonishing is that while Wal-Mart pays its employees dismal wages, the Walton family has made nearly $20 billion since last November on the rise in Wal-Mart's stock alone and Lee Scott was ranked as the highest paid CEO in consumer retail.

"Rather than adjusting the company's behavior to improve conditions for its employees, Wal-Mart has chosen to intimidate its workers to maintain the status quo. This time the company may have crossed the line."

You can hear more about this year's election controversies, voting rights and the latest political trends on "The D'Antoni and Levine Show," with my co-host Tom D'Antoni, a Huffington Post blogger, every Thursday at 5:30 p.m., EST, at BlogTalk Radio. This week, hear SD Sen. James Abourezk and Editor Jeffrey St. Clair join us for a discussion of energy policy, McCain's ties to Big Oil, and the Presidential campaign.

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