Wal-Mart is the largest private employer in the United States. It is the largest private employer in Mexico. It is the largest private employer in the world.
The right to form a union is enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It’s protected under US labor law. And Wal-Mart claims to respect its employees’ freedom of association. Yet, of more than 4,500 “Supercenters” and other retail locations in North America, not one is home to a unionized workforce.
You can believe that’s because Wal-Mart workers have no interest in unions—that they are content with forced overtime, “flexible” scheduling that allows managers to play havoc with their shifts, and wages that average just $8.81 per hour. (In state after state, Wal-Mart tops the list of companies whose employees rely on food stamps and other public assistance.)
Or you can believe the workers who have launched rolling strikes and protests this fall at Wal-Mart stores and subcontracted warehouses in a dozen states across the US—the most significant strikes the company has seen in its 50-year history. They claim that the corporation has systematically endeavored to silence employees who dare to speak up.
Such allegations are not new. In 2007, Human Rights Watch published a report on Wal-Mart charging that “while many American companies use weak US laws to stop workers from organizing, the retail giant stands out for the sheer magnitude and aggressiveness of its anti-union apparatus.” The company uses an “arsenal” of unlawful tactics—from eavesdropping on employees to training surveillance cameras on union supporters–to create a “climate of fear,” the report stated.
Unfortunately, justice for victims of illegitimate firings and other retaliation has been scarce: “Penalties under US labor law are so minimal that they have little deterrent effect,” Human Rights Watch noted, “and Wal-Mart only receives a slap on the wrist when found guilty of illegal conduct.”
Keeping constantly vigilant, Wal-Mart has famously maintained a hotline for managers to use the moment they suspect stirrings of collective action. A call results in the dispatch of a squad of union busters to the store in question. (In 2002, a colleague of mine slyly inserted the hotline number into an article. “Just for shits and giggles,” he wrote, “dial 501-273-8300.” Sadly for all you would-be pranksters, Wal-Mart scurried to alter the number, and the new one hasn’t yet leaked.)
What’s changed of late is not the conditions employees face; it’s that workers have embraced new organizing structures. Lacking sufficient protections in US law to unionize stores through traditional majority votes, they have instead created advocacy organizations that allow employees—even if they are a minority—to jointly push for improvements.
Those who have walked picket lines are only a small fraction of Wal-Mart’s workforce: They number in the hundreds, while Wal-Mart employs 1.6 million in the US. Nevertheless, as in any culture of fear, a public assertion of rights can send tremors far and wide.
Already, the actions have drawn international support. The labor federation UNI created the Walmart Global Union Alliance to link employees across borders. In places where Wal-Mart has purchased subsidiaries that are already unionized–such as Asda Stores in the UK–it has tried to strip employees of their collective bargaining rights. Accordingly, Wal-Mart workers from as far away as Argentina have vowed “joint actions” to aid the recent strikes, arguing that the standard of exploitation set in US stores will spread if not combated.
As of this writing, the fate of the Wal-Mart strikers is uncertain. But they have promised a wave of employee walkouts and consumer flash mobs during the critical holiday shopping season.
There’s good reason to find the flash mob nearest you. If we are to change an economy in which disrespecting human rights is the norm, the world’s largest private employer is an excellent place to start.