State of the (Labor) Union

The AFL-CIO (American Federation of Labor-Congress of Industrial Organizations) has fractioned. Membership has dwindled. The AFL-CIO, Union Network International, and the National Education Association are boycotting Wal-Mart. Is this a good thing?

According to this article, only a month ago three labor unions split from the AFL-CIO: The Service Employees International Union, The International brotherhood of Teamsters, and the United Food and Commercial Workers. These disaffiliations resulted in the AFL-CIO’s loss of 4.6 million members.

This year’s annual Union Network International convention in Chicago will bring together 1,500 delegates from some 150 countries to ‘share labor strategies and discuss ways unions can collaborate over international borders.’ “We want more organizing initiatives on a global scale,” along with “Global rules and global standards for workers everywhere,” according to Noel Howell, UNI spokesman.

The motives of the convention don’t seem to be quite that civilized, however. ‘UNI officials have spoken with Wal-Mart workers in Argentina and Brazil, and will continue organizing efforts in India, considered a likely future destination for the retailer.’ Bill Adams, a labor relations consultant, says “Wal-Mart and other multinationals better be worried.” Meanwhile, back at the U.S. ranch, the AFL-CIO has started a campaign against Wal-Mart, stating that the retailer is “setting a standard of low wages, poor benefits, and worker abuse that working families cannot accept.” On its petition web page, the organization continues, “Let’s educate Wal-Mart about how a rich company should treat its workers by pledging to buy back-to-school supplies at other stores this year.” From a Tell Me More link on the petition site, the AFL-CIO supports this approach with several, briefly described reasons along with their sources:

‘Wal-Mart has racked up huge fines for child labor law violations.’

‘Wal-Mart pays poverty-level wages and fails to provide affordable company health insurance to more than 600,000 employees.’

‘By demanding impossibly low prices, Wal-Mart forces its suppliers to produce goods in low-wage countries that don’t protect workers.’

‘Wal-Mart has a shameful record of paying women less than men.’

Note that Wal-Mart hasn’t reacted well when the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) in the past, closing a store this past April in Quebec after its workers voted to join the UFCW. Also, “In 2000, it eliminated all U.S. meatpacking positions after meatpackers in Texas voted to unionize.”

The National Education Association has jumped on the Wal-Mart back-to-school boycott. In an article from The Boston Globe, Why Target Wal-Mart?, author Michael Reitz says, ‘Why would the NEA, an organization whose stated mission is to ‘promote the cause of quality public education and advance the profession of education’ care about where parents buy pencils and backpacks? Reitz continues, ‘The boycott is little more than a union solidarity move, coming at a time when Big Labor’s numbers are plummeting and the movement is experiencing shockwaves of the rift within the AFL-CIO.”

Reitz make a good point. ‘Fifty years ago, one in three workers belonged to a union. Today, only 12 percent of the American workforce is unionized. Unions are so desperate for members they are attempting to organize unique sectors of the workforce such as babysitters and Ivy League student teaching assistants.’ Things certainly aren’t looking up for Labor, with a recent Zogby poll indicating that efforts to organize new sectors will be an uphill battle, with 56% of nonunion workers surveyed saying that they would vote against bringing a union into the workplace.

While backpacks and pencils won’t make a difference to some of the more technical- and engineering-related affiliations (such as the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers, or the International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers), the effects of the boycott—good or bad—could affect the overall health of the AFL-CIO.

While fraught with politically partisan issues, it seems the boycott—or even the idea of such a grass roots effort wrapped in the idea of helping families—hits home and just may result in people crossing party lines. For instance…

Is Wal-Mart Good or Bad for America?

Are Unions Good or Bad for America?

Tell us what you think.


International Unions Strategize in Chicago

Why Target Wal-Mart?

Take the Wal-Mart Back to School Pledge

What’s at Stake? Take the Wal-Mart Back to School Pledge


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  • Bonnie Henthorn
    November 30, 2005

    Unions are the only way that working America can hold corporations accountable. Even with unions, corporations in America continue to force higher and higher pay and benefits for executives and lower pay and benefits for workers. Without unions and without strength in numbers, there is no hope for manufacturing workers in this country. People need to stand up and take notice of what is happening everywhere and stand up for what they believe. Corporations have lulled Americans to sleep so that they can move in for the kill, by reaping huge profits then trying to tell the workers that ANY job is a good job and that they don’t deserve medical and other benefits.

    Look at the situation at PPG in Natrium, WV. Workers have been on strike for 3 months over a two-tier wage and benefits package system that will pay new employees less pay and benefits than what the current employees enjoy. This company (PPG) does not have the excuses as some of these other large corporations (Delphi, GM and Northwest) as they have:

    -enjoyed record breaking profits for the past 2 years;
    -have given their CEO and other high-ranking management pay raises in cash and benefits of anywhere from 179% to 250% last year;
    -rising stock price from $44 to $60-70+ in the past 3 years;
    -anticipate further growth, from the CEO’s own mouth.

    Why, during all the windfall success, do they insist on cutting pay and benefits for its employees? Corporate Greed…there is no other reason.

    These large corporations have brainwashed America, putting the fear into them that if you don’t do what we say, we’ll just move overseas. This has got to stop sometime, because there will eventually be no middle class, we will have very poor people on public assistance, and very rich people in management. One would think that corporations would stand up and take notice and realize that the middle class is what’s buying american cars. They are making huge profits from Americans paying $60 for Nike tennis shoes being made for $3 overseas, but what happens when no one can afford to buy the $60 tennis shoes anymore???

    Wake up America and smell the coffee, Wal-Mart is not the only company with unethical practices. Write your congressmen and let them know your concerns for all of us. We are all just one day away from the unemployment line.

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