Social Media Puts Wal-Mart on the Defensive

Social media appears to be playing a significant role in an epic battle between Wal-Mart Stores, the world’s largest retailer,  and an American union that presumably would like to represent Wal-Mart workers, The United Food and Commercial Workers .

The union has channeled worker dissatisfaction with  Wal-Mart’s  wages, benefits and working conditions into an innovative social media campaign  featuring web sites funded by the union called OURWalmart (Organization United for Respect at Walmart) and Making Change at Walmart.    These sites include a fundraising arm for “striking” Wal-Mart associates, news about alleged poor labor practices by Wal-Mart, and slick videos of associates complaining about their treatment by Wal-Mart. On Tuesday, OURWalmart referred associates to information allegedly leaked by OccupyWallStreet.org on secret Wal-Mart power points   that tell managers how to fend off unionization efforts.

OURWalmart has garnered national publicity for labor protests at Wal-Mart stores across the nation and appears to be making some gains, possibly because of Wal-Mart’s seeming overreaction to the protests of associates and the reality of Wal-Mart’s stingy  pay and benefits.

The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) Office of the General Counsel recently issued a consolidated complaint  against Wal-Mart alleging that the company violated the rights of its employees as a result of activities surrounding employee protests in 14 states. The complaint involves more than 60 employees, 19 of whom were discharged allegedly as a result of their participation in activities protected by the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA).  The NLRA guarantees the right of private sector employees to act together to try to improve their wages and working conditions with or without a union.

Wal-Mart contends that most of the associates were fired “for violating Walmart’s attendance policies that apply to all associates. Some of these individuals violated the attendance policy dozens of times in the last six months. In other cases, they were absent from work for more than eight days without letting anyone know when they would be returning to work. The facts present a very different story from what OUR Walmart/UFCW asserts.”

Wal-Mart has responded to the UCFW campaign with its own web site called, OURWalmartFactcheck.com , which states its purpose is “to examine claims and provide facts about the Organization United for Respect at Walmart (OUR Walmart) – a group funded by the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union. This site is sponsored and operated by Wal-Mart Stores, Inc.”

Fact checker

Ironically, Walmart’s OURFactcheck.com  on Tuesday appeared to need a fact checker.

The web site incorrectly quotes a story in The Daily News Telegram of Worchester, Massachusetts, as reporting  that the average the average Walmart associate earns $12.83 per hour, and less than 1/2 of 1% of associates earnclaim_source minimum wage.  Walmart provides a link to the The Telegram story, which quotes Kory Lundberg, a Walmart spokesman, as stating:  “In Massachusetts … the average wage of a full-time hourly associate at Walmart is $13.86. He also noted that the majority of Walmart employees are full time. Mr. Lundberg said less than 1/2 of one percent of all Walmart associates earn minimum. Walmart’s pay is comparable to other retailers; it has to be to stay competitive, he said.”

There’s obviously a difference between the average pay of a Walmart associate and the average wage in Massachusetts of a full-time hourly Walmart associate.

NLRB Complaint

According to the NLRB,  the consolidated complaint against Wal-Mart actually was authorized in November of 2013, but withheld until last week while the Office of the General Counsel engaged in failed settlement discussions with Wal-Mart.  Additional charges are under investigation.

The NLRB states that Wal-Mart unlawfully threatened employees with reprisal if they engaged in strikes and protests during two national television news broadcasts and in statements to employees at Walmart stores in California and Texas. At stores in California, Colorado, Florida, Illinois, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, North Carolina, Ohio, Texas and Washington, the NLRB says that Wal-Mart unlawfully threatened, disciplined, and/or terminated employees for having engaged in legally protected strikes and protests.  At stores in California, Florida, Missouri and Texas, the NLRB says Wal-Mart unlawfully threatened, surveilled, disciplined, and/or terminated employees in anticipation of or in response to employees’ other protected concerted activities.

Note: OurWalmart includes a “legal disclaimer” stating that the UCFW is not trying to organize Wal-Mart workers but merely to “help Wal-Mart employees as individuals or groups” in their dealings with Wal-Mart.

Politics Faulted for Loss of Good Jobs

 A new report by the Center for Economic and Policy Research says fewer  American workers today have a “good job” compared to the past, largely because of policy decisions that have undercut labor.

According to the report,  Where Have All the Good Jobs Gone, fewer than a quarter of American workers have a “good job.”

 A good job is defined as one that pays at least $37,000 per year, has employer-provided health insurance and an employer-sponsored retirement plan.

 The report states that one-fourth (24.6 percent) of the workforce in 2010 (the most recent year for which data are available) had a “good job.” This figure was down from 27.4 percent in 1979.

 The report’s authors, John Smith and Janelle Jones, attribute the decline in good jobs to policy decisions, rooted in politics, that have resulted in a drastic loss of workers’ bargaining power and the restructuring of the labor market since the end of the 1970s.

They say the American economy has lost about one-third of its capacity to generate good jobs since 1979. 

 According to the report:

  •  The share of private-sector workers who are unionized fell from 23 percent in 1979 to less than 8 percent today.
  •  The inflation-adjusted value of the minimum wage today is 15 percent below what it was in 1979.
  • Several large industries, including trucking, airlines, telecommunications, and others, have been deregulated, often at a substantial cost to their workers.
  •  Many jobs in state and local government have been privatized and outsourced.
  •  Trade policy has put low- and middle-wage workers in the United States in direct competition with typically much lower-wage workers in the rest of the world.  
  • A dysfunctional immigration system has left a growing share of our immigrant population at the mercy of their employers, while increasing competitive pressures on low-wage workers born in the United States.
  • Fiinally, leaders have placed  increased emphasis on controlling inflation rather than achieving full employment.

 “In our view, these policy decisions, rooted in politics, are the main explanations for the decline in the economy’s ability to generate good jobs,” state the authors.

  The report says the data show only minor differences in the deterioration of the economy’s ability to generate good jobs between 2007, before the Great Recession began, and 2010, the low point for the labor market. The deterioration relects long-run changes in the U.S. economy, not short-run factors related to the recession or recent economic policy.

 The report  controls for the age and education of the American workforce.

* The Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR) was established in 1999 to promote democratic debate on the most important economic and social issues that affect people’s lives.

The Occupy Wall Street Movement

It is ironic that the first flicker of optimism in recent months should stem from a rag-tag  protest group called Occupy Wall Street in New York City.

For years, American workers have seen factories shuttered and jobs exported overseas, experienced high and chronic unemployment, have been overworked and underpaid amid blatant and reprehensible corporate greed.

In the small world of workplace anti-bully advocates, state-by-state efforts to pass what can charitably be called anemic legislation to protect workers from this insidious form of abuse has failed to produce a  single victory in eight years. This despite the fact that most industrialized countries recognized the problem years ago and took steps to combat it.

Meanwhile, Congress appears to be in a state of paralysis, held hostage by a small group of right-wing legislators who prefer cuts in programs vital to the well-being of vulnerable children and the elderly to the repeal of tax cuts that already have transferred much of America’s wealth to the wealthiest one percent of our population.

About three weeks ago, a small group of protesters set up an encampment in New York’s Financial District to decry home foreclosures, high unemployment and the 2008 bailouts, as well as excessive force and unfair treatment of minorities, including Muslims. Their message has resonated.

On Wednesday, some of New York City’s most powerful unions were set to march from City Hall to the protest movement’s base at a park in lower Manhattan. They were to be joined by students at major public universities in New York City, where tuition is rising.

Meanwhile, similar “occupation” movements are springing up in cities around the country. On Tuesday, the Greater Boston Labor Council, representing 154 unions with 90,000 workers, supported the Occupy Boston encampment for shining “a spotlight on the imbalance of power in our nation and the role that Wall Street has played in devastating our economy.”

Nothing tangible has changed for American workers but at the same time it feels like something intangible is changing.

It is no longer just a few small voices in the wilderness who are demanding positive change on behalf of most Americans.