Union members, teachers and community leaders gathered in 34 cities in 24 states this month to protest the labor practices of the world's largest retail merchant and largest employer, Wal-Mart. The events were the beginning of a national "Send Wal-Mart Back to School" campaign, in which consumers are being asked to shop elsewhere for their back-to-school supplies. The nation's two largest teacher's groups, the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) and the National Education Association (NEA), are leading the campaign with support from the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) and AFL-CIO unions.
"We're not calling it a boycott, but we are asking shoppers to send Wal-Mart a sign," said Geralyn Lutty, UFCW international vice president and northwest regional director, in an interview with BW. As part of the Seattle event, Lutty said local teachers presented the "Wal-Mart Report Card," a 3-foot by 5-foot replica displaying the retailer's "F" grades for poverty-level wages, taxpayer abuse, poor benefits, discrimination and child labor.
"We're trying to raise consumer awareness about the negative impacts of this store to families and neighborhoods," Lutty said. Wal-Mart workers are often paid poverty-level wages, she said, making it hard to support themselves without seeking assistance from public aid.
Washington Sen. Jeanne Kohl-Welles agreed. "I have become increasingly concerned by the inadequate level of corporate responsibility that Wal-Mart has been demonstrating," she said at the rally. "Wal-Mart has been at the top of the list of companies with the highest number of employees on public health care.
In Idaho, House Speaker Bruce Newcomb recently echoed Kohl-Welles' sentiment. In a letter written to Idaho Health and Welfare Director Karl Kurtz, Newcomb cited a 2002 study in Georgia that found Wal-Mart workers relied disproportionately on Medicaid to provide health care to their children. As of press time, Newcomb was on vacation and unable to be contacted for this story.
Idaho State AFL-CIO President Dave Whaley said that his union is aware of the boycott on Wal-Mart and is standing by to assist with any requests for support by the local UFCW, whose president was also unavailable for comment as of press time. "We want people to know that Wal-Mart is not a good place to work or shop," Whaley said. "Their workers are low-paid and many can't afford health insurance ... it's quite a drain on the community."
Lutty said the campaign will continue until at least Labor Day, and while no events are currently in Boise for now, but anyone interested can visit the Web site www.wakeupwalmart.com to sign a pledge card to not shop at Wal-Mart.
Wal-Mart representatives did not return calls from BW, but later posted a response statement at the company-run Web site www.walmartfacts.com. The statement read, "The unions' latest publicity stunt won't affect our unshakeable commitment to education, nor will it divert attention from their internal problems. The millions of parents and teachers who rely on Wal-Mart's low prices are able to see though this smear campaign."
It's no secret that Wal-Mart isn't a fan of unions. The store has been accused of using secret accounts to fund union-busting operations, and explains its lack of a union in a statement on the store's Web site: "At Wal-Mart, we respect the individual rights of our associates and encourage them to express their ideas, comments and concerns. Because we believe in maintaining an environment of open communications, we do not believe there is a need for third-party representation."
However, Wal-Mart critics say taxpayer abuse is only one of their complaints. The retailer is also currently being sued for discrimination in the largest private civil rights case in American history, affecting over 1.5 million former and current women workers. The lawsuit alleges Wal-Mart systematically favors men over women in both pay and promotions.
Court documents posted on Bloomberg.com state Wal-Mart formed a diversity committee in 1996, but instead of implementing its recommendations, disbanded the panel. Another posted internal Wal-Mart document, titled "Minority/Gender Pay Analysis," admitted of their pay rates, "Generally, average salaries for female and minority males are below the overall average pay for most jobs. Average pay increases for minority males and females are generally below overall average income ratio across most jobs."
"We are stunned by Wal-Mart's blatant disregard for women and minorities," said Paul Blank, director of www.wakeupwalmart.com, in a statement on the Web site. "Wal-Mart wants to ignore serious problems at the expense of women, children and our country." Blank also told BW about an internal Wal-Mart investigation, whose results were posted on his site, finding "extensive violations of child labor laws and state regulations requiring time for breaks and meals." In one week, the audit found 1,371 violations. In June, Wal-Mart was fined for repeated child labor violations in Connecticut. In February, the retailer paid $135,540 in federal fines for child-labor violations. Regarding minorities, Wal-Mart agreed earlier this year to pay $11 million to settle a federal investigation that found hundreds of illegal immigrants were hired to clean stores.
Incidents like these help to explain why Wal-Mart has been accused of acting out against unions, said Boise attorney James Piotrowski, who recently won a class action lawsuit against the store.
"Union representation means better pay and benefits," said Piotrowski. His suit, currently under appeal, represents over 300 Oregon employees who said they were underpaid after the retailer encouraged them to work off the clock.
Piotrowski said he sympathizes with Wal-Mart workers, but stressed that the retailer is not good for communities overall. He also encouraged shoppers to spend their money someplace else, regardless of any added inconvenience.
"Working long hours, having kids and trying to also run life is not easy, but my family won't be shopping at Wal-Mart," he said.