By Dick Meister

RARELY HAVE AMERICAN unions faced greater challenges -- or greater
prospects -- than on this Labor Day. And though unions still represent less
than 15 percent of the country's workers, their success -- or failure --
will have  a  significant  impact on most Americans.

Consider the AFL-CIO's drive to win union rights from Wal-Mart Stores, the
nation's largest private employer, and its drive to oust President Bush and
Congress' Republican majority.

Unionizing virulently anti-union Wal-Mart would give labor one of its
biggest prizes in years and undoubtedly trigger a resurgence of union
organizing nationwide.  Ousting Bush and his GOP allies, who are equally
opposed to unions, would give labor at least as great a boost and as surely
make federal government more responsive to all of us rather than merely the
wealthy few.

Although the AFL-CIO is still tooling up for next year's presidential
and congressional election campaigns, the Wal-Mart campaign led by the
United Food and Commercial Workers Union is well underway.

With 3,500 stores nationwide and several hundred more planned, Wal-Mart is
by far the nation's largest retailer, alone accounting for 60 percent of all
retail sales.  The company's refusal to grant its 1.1 million employees the
basic right to a voice in determining their working conditions has kept them
in virtual poverty even as Wal-Mart's multi-billion-dollar profits have

Given the company's dominant position in the economy, its unrelenting
anti-unionism also has undermined the rights and conditions of millions of
other workers, union and non-union alike, throughout the retail industry and
U.S. industry generally.

As AFL-CIO President John Sweeney says, "In a world of Wal-Marts, the
American middle class would disappear."

Sweeney is not exaggerating. Wal-Mart's attitude is like that of employers
in past centuries who were members of a wealthy upper class that dictated
the terms of employment to those members of the large underclass whose work
created their wealth.

The bosses were always right.  They forced most workers to take whatever
pay and conditions they offered and do whatever they ordered, denying them
the collective action essential to challenging their unilateral actions.
That was before the rise of widespread unionization and finally, in the
mid-1930s, the firm legal right to unionization and consequent growth of a
genuine middle class.

It might as well be the mid-1830s at Wal-Mart, where company manuals
instruct managers to be "constantly alert to any signs your associates are
interested in a union.... Wal-Mart is opposed to unionization. You, as a
manager, are expected to support the company's position."

Government investigators, union organizers and many current and former
Wal-Mart employees say that has led to firings, demotions, reductions in pay
and working hours and other illegal disciplinary action against union

Organizers have been spied on, denied access to workers and had their
literature confiscated.  Managers have warned that their stores would close
if workers unionized, required workers to attend meetings at which managers
show anti-labor videos and speak out against unions. Some managers have
called in specialists to help identify their store's strongest union
supporters and plan actions against them.

The need for union bargaining rights is painfully obvious. "Sales
associates" -- more than 70 percent of them women -- typically work 32 hours
a week, for pay that averages less than $9 an hour or less than $15,000 a
year. More than 40 employees have filed suits charging that they and others
often are forced to work additional hours without any pay.

Wal-Mart does not offer retirement benefits.   It does offer health care
coverage, but to get it employees must pay nearly half the cost.  Only about
40 percent can afford to do so and instead rely on public health services,
as do many Wal-Mart retirees.  A like number qualify for government food
stamp programs and other public assistance.

Which means taxpayers are subsidizing Wal-Mart's profits by providing aid
that wouldn't be needed if the company provided decent compensation. The low
pay and benefits and heavy reliance an goods supplied cheaply to Wal-Mart by
manufacturers in developing countries that treat their workers even worse
has enabled the company to keep its prices low.

That means customers are helping Wall-Mart exploit hundreds of thousands of
workers here and abroad as well as indirectly adding to their own tax
burdens.  It also has put great pressures on other retailers and suppliers
to try to cut costs and prices by adopting Wal-Mart's primitive labor
relations practices.

The AFL-CIO isn't alone in the drive to give Wal-Mart's workers the vital
tool of unionization.  It's been joined, in dozens of cities across the
country, by supporters from more than 300 other organizations representing
women, students, civil rights advocates and others.

But the main burden is on labor. Its future may well depend on the outcome.

Copyright c 2003 Dick Meister, a San Francisco-based freelance columnist who
has covered labor issues for four decades as a reporter, editor and

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