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January 20, 2006

Wal-Mart Workers-- Why Wait for the NLRB?

Down in Florida, Wal-Mart workers have decided not to wait for permission from the National Labor Relations Board to be a union-- and have started acting like one right now, leading petition drives demanding restoration of cut hours, protesting firing of workers, and generally demanding better treatment.

The vehicle is the Wal-Mart Workers Association (WWA), a growing group of 300 current and former Wal-Mart workers in over 40 stores started with seed money from various unions and run in conjunction with ACORN (a community advocacy group).  As this article details

Non-majority unions such as the WWA don't wait for a court to license workers' use of collective action. They harness that anger and ingenuity to both win day-to-day victories and launch longer-term pressure campaigns. The strategy has roots in industries in which union recognition is rare: retail chain workers, state workers, and computer programmers and manufacturers.
One of the early focus of the campaigns is Wal-Mart's inconsistent scheduling system where workers see their hours cut semi-randomly.  But WWA has launched an innovative strategy to pressure Wal-Mart:
To counter the widespread problems of inconsistent and under-scheduling, the WWA launched a campaign to encourage Wal-Mart workers to file for unemployment compensation.

Smith estimates that "hundreds, if not thousands" of Wal-Mart workers have filed for unemployment as part of the WWA's campaign. They usually win, according to Smith, costing Wal-Mart tens of thousands of dollars, and when they lose, they force Wal-Mart into a lengthy and revealing appeal process.

As a result, a number of Wal-Mart stores with higher levels of WWA member activity have changed their scheduling policy.

The point of all of this is not to talk to Wal-Mart workers in theory about what a union can do for them, but to demonstrate through smaller campaigns what worker solidarity does -- and make the case for why even greater solidarity can only make their lives better.

There's no reason any set of workers have to wait for a majority of their fellow workers to join them in order to demand better treatment from their employers.  And given Wal-Mart's determination to fight any NLRB-style approach to organizing a union, this non-majority union approach to organizing is probably the only way to step-by-step build a critical mass to take on the company.

And it may be a model for revival of the union movement as a whole.  Stay tuned.  

Posted by Nathan at January 20, 2006 09:38 AM