Wal-Mart is a Poster Child For What is Wrong with Labor Laws

Human Rights Watch researchers don't normally spend their days listening to forty-something Americans talk about their former bosses, but that's what I was doing in March 2005, investigating how Wal-Mart violates its workers' right to form and join trade unions. So, on a warm spring day in Kingman, Arizona, I listened as a former Wal-Mart worker casually explained how the company had required him to take surveillance cameras supposedly set up to catch shoplifters and shift them to spy on union supporters and union activity at his store as part of a larger plan to squash a union drive.

Over the past two years, I traveled all over the country talking to Wal-Mart workers past and present and scoured hundreds of pages of documents from legal cases against the company for a report, published May 1, Discounting Rights: Wal-Mart's Violation of US Workers' Right to Freedom of Association. And I learned that Wal-Mart is a poster child for what is wrong with the US labor law system.

Wal-Mart is by no means the only US company to violate workers' rights, and it's rare that HRW focuses on a single company. (The only other example was a report on Enron before its collapse.) But Wal-Mart is the world's largest company, an industry leader. So, its treatment of its workers really matters.

The United States is legally obligated to uphold workers' right to organize (a fundamental human right) by the same international treaties) that guarantee rights like freedom of religion and ban practices like torture. But in practice, it falls far short of international standards, and Wal-Mart takes full advantage. Not only does the company deny its US workers' their right to form and join unions, but in many cases, it can do so without ever violating weak US labor laws.

Wal-Mart's anti-union playbook -- the "Manager's Toolbox" -- is sophisticated and disturbingly effective. Following this bible for thwarting unions, at the first sign of workers trying to organize, store managers call the Union Hotline at company headquarters in Bentonville, Ark. Wal-Mart usually responds quickly by sending out its Labor Relations Team to crush the union drive. Team members hold anti-union meetings with workers at which they recount a parade of horribles that go hand in hand with union formation, such as the possibility of lower wages, benefit loss, and sky-high dues.

They show anti-union videos depicting unions as outdated and their representatives as aggressive, harassing, and unsavory. Some of the videos, like the training video excerpted on our website, would be almost comical if they didn't have the pernicious effect of chilling workers' attempts to organize.

Workers don't have much chance to learn about the benefits of organizing. US law doesn't require employers to let workers hear both sides of the story so they can make an informed decision on union formation. With only Wal-Mart's relentless anti-union drumbeat echoing in their ears, many workers become convinced that unions are bad for them and for the company. Others are just too scared to defy their powerful employer's wishes.

Sadly, their fears are often justified. The company has occasionally illegally disciplined and fired union supporters. More often, it has resorted to subtle but equally effective and just as illegal tactics to defeat organizing. Wal-Mart has sent high-level managers to work alongside union supporters, eavesdropping on conversations and hampering union activity. The company has also called the police on union representatives leafleting outside its stores, snatched pro-union information from workers' hands and off break room tables, and banned talk about unions. The list goes on.

But even when the authorities find Wal-Mart guilty of illegal conduct, the company barely receives a slap on the wrist. US labor laws don't come with fines or punitive sanctions, so they do little to deter anti-union employers from breaking the law. Instead, in most cases, the laws simply require an employer to restore the status quo in the workplace -- just as it was before the illegal activity -- and post notices in-store promising not to violate the laws' flimsy rights protections yet again.

With such an uneven playing field, with aggressive one-sided anti-union campaigning and laws slanted decidedly against workers organizing, the chance of a fair election in which workers can freely choose whether to form a union is slim to none. Wal-Mart has more than 1.3 million US workers, and not one is represented by a union. In the United States as a whole, only roughly 12 percent of workers are union members.

But reform may be in sight. In March, the US House of Representatives passed the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA). The bill is pending in the US Senate, but President George W. Bush has promised to veto the legislation if it reaches his desk.

The EFCA would help restore workplace democracy by requiring employers to recognize a union if a majority of workers signs cards demonstrating their desire to organize, rather than relying on an election process that can only be truly fair if an employer wants it to be. This "card check" recognition would eliminate the period leading up to union elections when companies like Wal-Mart mount hard-hitting, unbalanced campaigns to derail union formation and undermine workers' rights. The EFCA would also increase penalties for illegal activity, which should make employers think twice before breaking US labor laws.

The US Senate should pass the EFCA. And if President Bush truly believes in giving the hardworking poor a fair shake, he should sign it into law to help stop Wal-Mart's assault on rights and stop other companies from following its lead.

Not surprisingly, Wal-Mart opposes the EFCA. Wal-Mart also claims that it already respects its workers' right to "a free and fair unionization vote." But current and former Wal-Mart workers and managers, and reams of legal documents, tell a very different story.

Carol Pier, the senior labor rights and trade researcher at Human Rights Watch, is the author of Discounting Rights: Wal-Mart's Violations of US Workers' Rights to Freedom of Association.