A Brief History of the Attempts to Unionize Walmart
Rick Wartzman on the Behemoth’s Antipathy Toward Organized Labor
If there is one thing that runs as deep in Walmart’s DNA as its devotion to keeping costs down and prices low, it would have to be its antipathy toward organized labor.
The company’s open-door policy, Sam Walton maintained, was the perfect avenue for hourly employees to bring any complaints they might have to management’s attention, and he didn’t want some third party wedging itself between Walmart and its workers. “We resent outsiders coming in and saying things which aren’t true and trying to change the company that has meant so much to all of us,” Walton said.
Whether Walton was also worried that a union contract would force him to pay his workers more, he never said. But whatever his mix of motives may have been, this much was certain: every time there was so much as a flicker of union activity at his company, Walton and his sidekicks would rush in and do everything they could to snuff it out.
Walton took his cues from attorney John Tate, who as a young man in 1936 had been conked on the head while crossing a picket line at Reynolds Tobacco Company in his hometown of Winston-Salem, North Carolina, where his father was a manager. It was a licking he never forgot. “I hate unions with a passion,” he once said. An ardent conservative who construed his clashes with labor leaders as one aspect of a bigger fight for “freedom” being conducted by right- thinking Americans, Tate perfected the art of “union avoidance.” By the early 1970s, when Sam Walton procured his services, Tate’s bag of tricks included trying to keep workers happy by soliciting their input for improving the business and rewarding them with profit sharing.
But he also had his clients trot out hardball tactics whenever necessary: convening captive meetings where workers were force-fed anti-union propaganda, delaying elections, stalling negotiations, replacing strikers, and moving to decertify unions that had won the right to represent the rank-and-file.
Walmart eagerly embraced all of Tate’s teachings. When the Retail Clerks threatened to gain a foothold at two Missouri Walmarts in 1972, a company executive instructed the manager at one of them that if he caught any workers with union cards, he should fire them even if he had to bring on all new employees. When the Teamsters tried to organize a Walmart distribution center in Searcy, Arkansas, in 1982, Walton himself told the workers that he’d take away their profit sharing if they voted for the union.
Then he went even further. “He told us that if the union got in, the warehouse would be closed,” one of those in Searcy related. “He said people could vote any way they wanted, but he’d close her right up.” All of this was illegal, but that didn’t seem to give Walton any pause. The Teamsters lost the election, much to his delight. “Our good associates at our Searcy distribution center rejected the union by an overwhelming margin of three to one,” Walton wrote in Wal-Mart World. “Bless them all.”Organizing Walmart store by store was essentially impossible because buttonholing workers across such a vast expanse entailed an equally vast expense—one beyond the capacity of any union or even group of unions.
For union organizers, attempting to penetrate Walmart was perpetually frustrating. When Mr. Sam was around, many hourly employees were persuaded that the company took sufficiently good care of them, particularly with profit sharing and the ability to purchase Walmart stock. “They felt they were going to be wealthy,” said Pat O’Neill, who endeavored to organize Walmart workers in the upper Midwest for the United Food and Commercial Workers from the mid-1980s through the early 90s before later becoming a top union official. “It created a psychological barrier.”
By the late 90s, Walmart had become so big, with hundreds and hundreds of Supercenters having been built in rapid succession all over the country, that there was almost no practical way for labor to make a dent. “It just started to blow up on us,” said Ron Lind, a UFCW official in Northern California who suddenly had to deal with unionized grocery chains like Safeway and Kroger citing competition from Walmart as the rationale for holding down their own wages and benefits. An article in Fortune spelled it out like this: “Think your job is tough? Meet the people whose task is to unionize the world’s biggest company.”
Organizing Walmart store by store was essentially impossible because buttonholing workers across such a vast expanse entailed an equally vast expense—one beyond the capacity of any union or even group of unions. “If you tried to do the whole thing, it would cost a couple hundred million dollars,” said Jeff Fiedler, a veteran UFCW organizer who, in an earlier post at the AFL-CIO’s Food and Allied Service Trades Department in the 1980s, was the first person to sound the alarm for many of his union brethren that Walmart was on the verge of becoming a leviathan. And suppose organizers had been able to crack a few locations. So what? “It would be pure delusion to contend that a handful of isolated successes in individual Walmart stores would give workers significant power to bargain decent contracts with this giant, alien corporation,” said Wade Rathke, a community organizer who tussled with Walmart on several fronts, including leading the resistance to the opening of new Supercenters in Florida.
Even isolated successes proved elusive, however. “I’ve never seen a company that will go to the lengths that Walmart goes to, to avoid a union,” said Martin Levitt, who consulted with the company before writing a book called Confessions of a Union Buster. “They have zero tolerance.” To gauge which stores were most susceptible to organizing, Walmart tracked employee attitudes and entered the results into a computer, which spit out a UPI—Union Probability Index. “The commitment to stay union free must exist at all levels of management—from the chairperson of the ‘board’ down to the frontline manager,” read a manual circulated in 1991 at a Walmart distribution center in Indiana. “Therefore, no one in management is immune from carrying his or her ‘own weight’ in the union prevention effort.” Whenever there was the slightest hint of an organizer coming around, salaried supervisors were directed to call a special hotline.
“We were basically spies, spies for the stores, spies for the company,” said a department head at a Walmart in Kingman, Arizona, where the UFCW had made strides in organizing a group of auto technicians in 2000. A “labor team” from Bentonville was dispatched to the scene to monitor what was happening, coach management on how to defeat the UFCW, screen militant anti-union videos for the workers, and all but take over the store until the organization drive had been thwarted. Kingman wasn’t an anomaly, either.
Despite decades of trying—and the filing of 288 unfair labor practice charges against the company between 1998 and 2003 for purportedly surveilling, interrogating, and firing workers who hoped to organize—neither the UFCW nor any other union was ever able to notch a single victory at a Walmart in the United States. Except for once. In February 2000, butchers at a Walmart Supercenter in Jacksonville, Texas, voted seven to three in favor of being represented by the UFCW. Soon, the company announced that it would stop cutting meat and instead sell prepackaged beef and pork at all of its stores. Walmart said this move to stock “case-ready” meat was long planned to keep pace with industry trends and that the UFCW’s triumph was unrelated.
In any event, Walmart was now able to argue that because the employees in Jacksonville were no longer using specialized meat-cutting skills on the job, they now failed to constitute an appropriate bargaining unit under labor law. The court agreed. Once again, Walmart had escaped being unionized.
In September 2004, right around the time that Lee Scott was holding his “choice meeting” on the environment, John Tate—then 86 years old and retired—was invited to speak to an assembly of Walmart executives and store managers in Dallas. “Labor unions are nothing but blood-sucking parasites living off the productive labor of people who work for a living!” he thundered. The Walmart faithful rose to their feet, hooting and shouting their approval.
In the 1950s, Tate told the crowd, more than a third of all private-sector workers in the United States were union members. Now, fewer than ten percent were. “Sam would have been proud of you for that!” Tate said amid another standing ovation. “The battle isn’t yet won. I want to conclude by challenging you to reduce that percentage. You can do it and at the same time ensure your own future.” The unions weren’t about to roll over, though. Far from it.
About six months after Tate’s provocation to Walmart managers, the UFCW and the Service Employees International Union both launched new campaigns against the company. Only this time, they were less about signing up workers and more about tearing down the company.
The SEIU kickstarted things in late 2004 when it seeded a nonprofit called the Center for Community and Corporate Ethics, which, in turn, stood up an advocacy arm known as Five Stones—a reference to the rocks that David plucked out of a streambed to slay Goliath. The Goliath in this case was Walmart, and the campaign designed to bring the company to its knees was christened Walmart Watch.
The SEIU’s intention wasn’t to drag Walmart to the bargaining table. Its membership was made up mostly of nursing aides, homecare and childcare workers, janitors, security guards, those in food services, and government employees; a retailer was beyond the union’s purview. Rather, the SEIU set out to attack Walmart as if it were a political opponent—with nonstop negative messaging. “We referred to what we were doing as an air war,” said Janet Shenk, who helped raise funds for the campaign. “We’re not organizing workers on the ground. This is an air war.”
Part of what the SEIU wanted to accomplish by going after Walmart so publicly was to raise people’s consciousness about larger issues of economic justice that the union’s president, Andy Stern, was increasingly upset about: income inequality, wage stagnation, and a dearth of good healthcare coverage for working people and their families. “This was a great way to get out there and say, ‘Big corporations are screwing America,’” explained Stern, who led the SEIU from 1996 to the middle of 2010.
Walmart Watch also wanted to “make other businesses realize that if they act in the same irresponsible manner they will be attacked as well,” according to an internal memo. Meanwhile, if Walmart could be bludgeoned into boosting workers’ pay and benefits, other corporations were sure to follow suit. “It was never that they were absolutely the worst,” Shenk said. “That’s not why Walmart was picked on. It’s because they were the biggest, and if they changed it would make a huge difference for the sector as a whole.”
This article has been excerpted from Still Broke: Walmart’s Remarkable Transformation and the Limits of Socially Conscious Capitalism by Rick Wartzman. Copyright © 2022. Available from PublicAffairs, an imprint of Perseus Books, LLC, a subsidiary of Hachette Book Group, Inc.