A coalition of groups made up of thousands of Wal-Mart employees that eschews union strategies may have a fighting chance of chipping away at the company’s brutal employment policies. Rather than negotiating, the new groups use a method similar to one that has served civil dissidents well: provoking legally prosecutable retaliations against employees. —ARK
Organizers credit the group’s brisk expansion to the ditching of formal union drives, in which organizers must win a prescheduled election at a store. “Walmart is very effective in dealing with a classic union strategy, where there’s an election coming that it can plan around,” says Wade Rathke, the founder of ACORN. He helped organize Walmarts from Florida to California in an experiment with nonunion organizing beginning in 2004. “But when there’s no election coming, they don’t know how to deal with these noncertified workers’ associations.”
This nonelection route bypasses official forms of collective bargaining, which mandate that workers and management sit down to agree on compensation and hours. Instead, these worker associations bargain outside pre-established frameworks of negotiation, using any means legal to pressure management into recognizing their interests—an arrangement that closely resembles pre–New Deal unionism. With little institutional arbitration, this model can be seen as a rawer, more organic form of workplace struggle.
National labor law broadly protects nonunion worker activities, including collective actions and even nonunion strikes. “In a nonunion situation, the employers do not have to agree to what these groups demand, but if the employer retaliates, there is a right to file an unfair practice charge and the NLRB would enforce it,” says Lance Compa, a professor of labor relations at Cornell University.