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Tuesday, 7 November 2006

US Labour Movement Campaigns Against Wal-Mart

Labor Tries Political Tack Against Wal-Mart By ALAN MURRAY - The Wall Street Journal August 10, 2005 Is Wal-Mart good or evil? Sam Walton would be stunned to learn the company he founded in 1962, now ranks with the war in Iraq, prayer in the schools and gay marriage as one of the polarizing public issues of our times. For Mr. Walton, the formula for corporate virtue was simple: provide the widest array of goods at the lowest possible price. His company has done that with relentless success for decades, transforming the global economy and, in the process, becoming the world's largest retailer. But today, at 34 news conferences in 24 states across the U.S., a group called Wake-Up Wal-Mart will paint Sam Walton's company in black. The group -- started by the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union, and backed by teachers' unions -- will call for a Back-to-School boycott of Wal-Mart stores, charging the Bentonville, Ark., company with paying poverty-level wages, providing skimpy benefits and flouting labor and discrimination laws. (Never mind the fact that it sells a large box of crayons for 25 cents.) It is tempting to dismiss this campaign as the last gasp of a dying labor movement. The AFL-CIO is splintering. And the effort by the UFCW, one of the break-off unions, is born of failure to organize a single Wal-Mart store in the U.S. despite years of effort. Shrugging off "Wake-Up Wal-Mart" would be a mistake, for two reasons. First, the breakup of organized labor may have a rejuvenating effect on unions like the UFCW, which will need to show success. Just as competition sharpens the focus of business, it is likely to do the same for labor. one that could increase its effectiveness. The unions have been losing on the shop floor for decades, and in recent years, their political clout has waned as well. Now they are borrowing a page from media-and-Internet-savvy groups that have scored surprising David-and-Goliath successes by attacking companies where they are most vulnerable: their public reputations. Whether it is Greenpeace going after the oil companies, Médecins Sans Frontières targeting pharmaceutical companies or the Rainforest Action Network banging on big banks, these scrappy "nongovernmental organizations" have shown that big, global corporations will go to surprising lengths to keep their images clean. The unions hope Wal-Mart will do the same. To run the new effort, the UFCW hired a refugee from Howard Dean's political campaign, Paul Blank, who operates out of cramped offices on Washington's K Street, where the walls are covered with maps and hand-drawn anti-Wal-Mart signs. Meantime, the Service Employees International Union, another break-off union, has established a rival site, Wal-Martwatch, with support from liberal groups including the Sierra Club and Common Cause. "We have no intention of trying to organize Wal-Mart workers," says SEIU President Andrew Stern. "The purpose is to change Wal-Mart's business model -- a business model that rewards shareholders and executives and doesn't reward workers." To date, there is no sign this strategy is hurting Wal-Mart's sales. Wake-Up Wal-Mart boasts 68,000 registered members -- roughly the same number of people who walk into a Wal-Mart every five minutes. Still, the company is clearly taking the threat seriously. As this newspaper reported last month, Chief Executive Lee Scott has become Wal-Mart's "defender-in-chief," abandoning its customary reclusiveness and devoting much of his time to promoting its virtues. While the unions are clearly his major opponent, his strategy seems to be to reach out to union allies -- Democratic politicians, teachers, environmental groups, women's groups and civil-rights groups -- in an attempt to isolate labor. "We listen to all of our critics, because a lot of times they have legitimate concerns," says Wal-Mart representative Mona Williams. "But the unions are not in that category." Will the anti-Wal-Mart campaign change the company's behavior? Some say it already has, leading it to pay more attention to environmental and workplace issues. My guess is the company also will have to take another look at its health-care policies. A number of states have reported that Wal-Mart tops the list of employers whose workers receive taxpayer-subsidized Medicaid coverage. While Wal-Mart says its workers go on public assistance at about the same rate as those of other retailers, its size -- and its supersize profits -- make it stand out. But here is what Wal-Mart won't do: let unions into the workplace. The company is convinced that would compromise its extraordinarily successful business model, based on an unrelenting push to cut costs. Wake-Up Wal-Mart may achieve many of its goals. But it won't unionize Wal-Mart.

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