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Unions Plan Massive Global Campaign Against Wal-Mart

The New York Times

Unions Plan Big Drive for Better Pay at Nonunion Wal-Mart

By STEVEN GREENHOUSE

December 11, 2004

The A.F.L.-C.I.O. and more than a half dozen unions are planning an unusual
- and unusually expensive - campaign intended to pressure Wal-Mart, the
world's largest retailer, to improve its wages and benefits.

The campaign will be highly unusual because it will not, at least at first,
focus on unionizing Wal-Mart workers, but will instead focus on telling
Americans that Wal-Mart - with wages averaging between $9 and $10 an hour -
is pulling down wages and benefits at companies across the nation.

The unions are talking of spending $25 million a year on the effort, more
than has ever been spent before in a union campaign against a single
company.

"This isn't a campaign, this is a movement," said Greg Denier, spokesman
for the United Food and Commercial Workers Union. "There's no precedent for
this. It's a movement to confront the reality of Wal-Mart-ization. No other
company has ever had the global economic impact that Wal-Mart has."

Wal-Mart has 1.2 million workers in the United States, more than any other
company, but no unionized workers. It has a history of fiercely resisting
unionization efforts.

Wal-Mart executives say that its wages are competitive with those of other
retailers. But critics assert that now that it has become the nation's
largest company, Wal-Mart, like General Motors of old, has a responsibility
to be a model on wages and benefits.

Christi Davis Gallagher, a Wal-Mart spokeswoman, warned that higher wages
could lead to higher prices.

"It appears the unions want to take millions of dollars in dues from their
members and use them to rob average Americans of their right to pay less for
the basics in life," Ms. Gallagher said. "You need to ask one question: Is
it fair to ask American consumers to pay higher prices to subsidize a
relatively small pocket of individuals just because they are making the most
noise?"

The new effort, to be announced officially in several months, will also be
unusual because most union campaigns involve just one union. Because
Wal-Mart is so huge, labor leaders have concluded that several unions should
work with the A.F.L.-C.I.O. on the effort.

Among those participating are the Service Employees International Union, the
International Brotherhood of Teamsters and the United Food and Commercial
Workers Union. Many union leaders have criticized the food and commercial
workers for doing too little over the past decade to unionize Wal-Mart, but
the union's new president, Joseph Hansen, has vowed to do more.

Andrew L. Stern, the service employees' president, said: "Wal-Mart is much
too big for any one union to tackle. The Wal-Mart-ing of the economy is a
threat to every union."

Last winter, California's three largest supermarket chains waged a 20-week
labor battle, involving a strike and lockout, in which they urged the food
and commercial workers union to make major concessions on wages and benefits
to help the companies compete with Wal-Mart. The supermarkets emerged
victorious, getting the union to agree to a lower wage and benefit scale for
new hires.

The unions plan to work with community groups fighting the construction of
Wal-Mart stores and are contemplating lawsuits accusing the company of
forcing employees to work unpaid hours off the clock. The unions are also
planning a publicity campaign in which union members distribute fliers and
hold protests at hundreds of the nation's 3,600 Wal-Mart stores.

The unions also plan an intense effort in several regions where they might
set up committees of current and former Wal-Mart workers to publicize what
they consider inferior wages and health benefits. These committees might
also serve as the base for future unionization efforts.

While attending a labor conference in Japan on Monday, the A.F.L.-C.I.O.'s
president, John J. Sweeney, met with union leaders from several countries
that have Wal-Mart stores, including Mexico and Brazil, to strategize on how
to pressure Wal-Mart. Mr. Sweeney said the unions would urge Wal-Mart to
stop pressing suppliers to cut costs so low that the suppliers' workers
receive low wages.

"We're also concerned about the 20,000 workers at Wal-Mart stores in China
and about the 6 million Chinese workers who produce goods sold at
Wal-Marts," he said.

Mr. Stern of the service employees' union has proposed financing the
campaign by using the $25 million the A.F.L.-C.I.O. receives yearly from its
Union Plus credit card.

Mr. Sweeney said, "I'm not sure if $25 million is enough."

Ms. Gallagher of Wal-Mart said, "One thing that the unions seem to miss is
that Wal-Mart's ability to offer the lowest prices around is driven by a
passion to drive costs out of our business at all levels," including
information technology.

She added, "While the unions want people to believe that we drive down our
costs primarily through our wages or benefits, that is simply not the case."