The New York Times

September 3, 2005

Wal-Mart Workers Are Finding a Voice Without a Union


TAMPA, Fla., Sept. 1 - Having failed to unionize any Wal-Marts, American labor unions have helped form a new and unusual type of workers' association to press Wal-Mart Stores Inc. to improve its wages and working conditions.

With its first beachhead in Central Florida, the two-month-old group is already battling Wal-Mart, the nation's largest corporation, over what it says is the company's practice of reducing the hours that many employees work, often from 40 a week to 34, 30 or even fewer, jeopardizing some workers' health benefits.

Belva Whitt, a cashier who earns $7.40 an hour, said she had joined the new group, the Wal-Mart Workers Association, largely because she was unhappy with her wages and because her hours were reduced to part time from full time many weeks.

"I'm a single mother trying to raise my son, so not having that money makes it hard," said Ms. Whitt, 30. "Sometimes I have to decide, am I paying the rent or will I have food on the table?"

The association says it has nearly 200 current and former Wal-Mart workers and is growing by 30 workers a week. Members pay dues of $5 a month. In Florida, its membership includes workers from 30 stores in the Tampa, Orlando and St. Petersburg areas, and it is also seeking to enlist Wal-Mart employees in Texas.

The group's sponsors include the United Food and Commercial Workers Union, the Service Employees International Union, and Acorn, an advocacy group for low-income people. It has also received support from the Marguerite Casey Foundation, which helps low-income families, and the Nathan Cummings Foundation, which promotes social justice.

"We are building something that's never been seen; it's neither fish nor fowl," said Wade Rathke, a top Acorn official who is the chief organizer for the association. "We're focusing on Wal-Mart because it is the largest employer in the area - and in the whole nation - and is setting standards that affect communities and employment relations across the nation."

The association's workers, Mr. Rathke said, would seek to "aggressively engage the company on their rights and how they are treated."

The group is urging the State of Florida to grant unemployment benefits to workers whose hours have been cut back by Wal-Mart. It is arguing that workers who quit Wal-Mart because the reduced hours meant they were not earning enough to live on deserve jobless benefits. It also wants supplemental jobless benefits for workers with reduced hours who remain at Wal-Mart.

Dan Fogleman, a Wal-Mart spokesman, defended the company. "Our wages are competitive within the retail workplace," Mr. Fogleman said. "We work hard to make health care premiums affordable."

He said the company's associates, as Wal-Mart calls its workers, were free to form such an organization. But he said that Wal-Mart hoped employees would feel free to bring any concerns to upper management through what the company calls its open-door policy.

As for the reduction of hours, Mr. Fogleman said, "For years we have had a scheduling system in place that is designed to match associates' work schedules to projected customer flow to our stores."

Warren May, a spokesman for the Florida agency in charge of unemployment benefits, said Wal-Mart workers who remained on the job might qualify for unemployment compensation if their hours were cut sharply. Mr. May said those who quit their jobs because of a reduction in hours might have a harder time winning benefits.

Carl Jones, one of the leaders of the new group, said Wal-Mart's pay was too low, pointing to the $9.40 an hour he earns after five years as the lead shopping cart pusher at a Wal-Mart in Apopka, outside Orlando.

"It's really hard for me and my wife to make ends meet," Mr. Jones said. "They treat workers like we're just something there to be used and to get as much out of us as they can."

The association says Wal-Mart is betraying the desire of its founder, Sam Walton, to maintain a family-friendly company.

Ms. Whitt and several other members of the association say that Wal-Mart's health plan has such high premiums and deductibles that they cannot afford to join it. As a result, Ms. Whitt and thousands of other Wal-Mart workers receive health coverage through Medicaid.

The Marguerite Casey Foundation has granted $250,000 to an Acorn-backed project that is in turn giving much of that money to the new association.

"We want to broadly support economic justice," said Chantel L. Walker, the foundation's director of programs. "We believe that Wal-Mart could really make a difference because of the size of their work force and because of the leadership role they play."

The association is the latest attempt by labor and community groups to squeeze at Wal-Mart's pressure points. In the past month, the food and commercial workers have led an effort, joined by the nation's two big teachers unions, urging consumers not to purchase school supplies at Wal-Mart. Another group, Wal-Mart Watch, plans to announce a week of demonstrations and meetings nationwide in November to criticize Wal-Mart's wages and benefits.

Labor leaders say they support the nonunion Wal-Mart Workers Association because with the company fighting aggressively against unionization, they recognize that it will be extremely hard to unionize any Wal-Marts.

"This dovetails nicely with what we're doing," said William McDonough, organizing director of the food and commercial workers, which has sought unsuccessfully to unionize several Wal-Marts. "Our role is to help Wal-Mart workers get a voice on the job."

Mr. McDonough said his union hoped that Wal-Mart workers would grow so emboldened and that community support would grow so strong that unions could succeed at organizing some Wal-Marts in a few years.

The new association is not urging shoppers to boycott Wal-Mart.

"I like Wal-Mart, I enjoy working for them," Ms. Whitt said. "But what they're doing is wrong. They need to fix it."