BENTONVILLE, Ark. — In corporate America, there is nothing like Wal-Mart. In just 40 years, it has become the nation's biggest company and the world's largest retailer. In the United States alone, it owns 3,300 stores and employs more than one million workers.
And not one of them is a union member. In fact, unions have made only one successful effort at organizing at a Wal-Mart in the United States — in a butcher's department in a Texas store. Two weeks later the company disbanded that department.
The Texas drive and growing but scattered support from workers as well as 10 judgments in its favor from the National Labor Relations Board are all organized labor has to show for a four-year effort to organize Wal-Mart workers.
But labor is escalating its efforts, and in an all-out assault on the discount retailer that has grown to nearly 100 stores in 20 states, the United Food and Commercial Workers Union has hired disaffected managers as organizers and created a radio show and Web site that lambaste Wal-Mart's working conditions. The union tells Wal-Mart workers that it can increase their wages, which average less than $9 an hour and $18,000 a year, and improve their health coverage and lower their premiums by getting Wal-Mart to contribute more.
For labor, it is an enduring embarrassment not to have a presence at a company that is widely viewed as the epitome of American business success. Many labor leaders see this organizing effort as a test case of whether unions can succeed in the 21st century.
Wal-Mart officials, like many companies, have strategies to keep out unions as a way of holding down costs. But labor leaders assert that Wal-Mart often crosses the line and violates federal laws protecting workers' rights to unionize.
Over the last four years, the National Labor Relations Board has filed more than 40 complaints against Wal-Mart, accusing managers in more than two dozen stores of illegal practices, including improperly firing union supporters, intimidating workers and threatening to deny bonuses if workers unionized. Of those, the board found illegal practices in 10 cases; 8 cases were settled and the rest are pending.
But Wal-Mart executives say the company has been able to remain nonunion not because of unfair tactics but because the company keeps its employees happy and pays competitive wages.
"Our track record of taking care of our people and taking care of our customers is very good," said Jay Allen, Wal-Mart's senior vice president for corporate relations. "We have a million people in the U.S., and I'm not saying this is true for every one of those one million, but they like the way we operate our stores."
Labor leaders say Wal-Mart's strategy to remain nonunion threatens to undermine the wage gains that unions have made over the years. Many Wal-Mart competitors, including Sears, Kmart and Costco, have long had unions, and some of those rivals, most notably, Safeway and Kroger, have started demanding contract concessions, insisting that it is hard to remain competitive when Wal-Mart's wages and benefits are often 20 percent below theirs. Unionized Kroger workers, for example, earn an average of $14 to $17 an hour after three years, retail analysts said, while such Wal-Mart workers often earn $10 to $12.
"In general Kroger's wages and benefits are significantly higher than Wal-Mart's," said Gary Rhodes, a Kroger spokesman. "Obviously we need to find ways to lower the cost gap."
The effort to organize Wal-Mart has become labor's most ambitious and arguably most difficult unionization drive.
"It's essential that the biggest company in the world treat its employees decently, with decent wages and benefits," said Bill Meyer, director of the union drive in Nevada. "It's going to be a struggle. It's not going to be overnight."
The drive comes when organized labor is eager to reverse its decline — unions represent 9 percent of private-sector workers, down from nearly 40 percent...
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