Wal-Mart's Failure to Protect Its Workers: An Unfortunate Symbol

Sometimes symbols appear unexpectedly. Jdimytai Damour, a temporary Wal-Mart worker, became a symbol to millions of low-wage workers last Friday when he died a needless death because Wal-Mart failed to take the necessary precautions to protect him. He became a symbol of those workers quietly yielding to unsafe working conditions because they have no voice. Americans need Congress to pass the Employee Free Choice Act next year so that deaths like Mr. Damour's, and so many other deaths and injuries to low-wage workers on the job can be avoided in the future.

In 2007 a respected human rights watchdog group, Human Rights Watch, released a report critical of Wal-Mart's union-busting policies and practices in the United States. According to the report, "while many American companies use weak U.S. laws to stop workers from organizing, the retail giant stands out for the sheer magnitude and aggressiveness of its anti-union apparatus." Wal-Mart's opposition to its workers exercising their legal right to organize has even extended to terminating entire departments and closing entire stores.

For example, in February 2000, ten employees of the Wal-Mart meat department in a Jacksonville, Texas, store elected United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) as their union. Wal-Mart immediately scrapped their entire network of in-store butcher departments nationwide. And in Jonquière, Quebec, after the birth of a certified UFCW Local at a Wal-Mart store and a decision by the Minister of Labor for Quebec to grant the union's request for contract arbitration, Wal-Mart announced that it would close the Jonquière store.

The result of this behavior is that workers are denied a seat at the table to contribute to setting standards that protect them on the job. In the absence of such contributions, management is free to set whatever standards it deems appropriate and workers are obligated to go along if they wish to keep their jobs. To make matters worse, Wal-Mart store management's compensation is based on bonus systems that encourage cutting labor costs, resulting in more temporary workers. Temporary workers like Damour are particularly vulnerable in that environment because they have neither the context nor the influence to express reservations when asked to perform certain duties.

Without a union it is entirely up to Wal-Mart's management to determine whether or not they took legitimate precautions to prevent this incident. In the absence of union representation, let me suggest if it is not already obvious from the events that unfolded, that Wal-Mart failed on at least a few levels to protect its employees and its customers.

First, it appears there was a shortage of adequate security at the doors. Wal-Mart has still not released how many guards were present at the time to control the rushing crowd of 2000 people. Second, the company used at least some temporary workers including Mr. Damour who were not familiar with what to expect on Black Friday. Third, as some news reports have pointed out, unlike other retailers Wal-Mart did not provide tickets for store entry or offer rain-checks for any items that were sold out. All of these choices contributed to the tragic events of that day and the workers who were on the line that morning had no say in making any of them.

More low-wage workers need a voice in their workplace. The current system of certifying a union has failed because employers have found ways to thwart the process, and the federal government has failed to prevent that interference or to protect workers right to organize in any meaningful way. It is time for a change.

Next year, by passing the Employee Free Choice Act, Congress can provide that change. No one will force workers to organize a union, but they will be freer to do so if they choose. I believe that many of them will seek a union for all the reasons that people have wanted unions in the past including workplace safety. Sadly and unexpectedly, Jdimytai Damour will be a symbol for that fight and a powerful reminder of how workers are taken advantage of every day.