Industry Market Trends

State of the (Labor) Union

Aug 22, 2005

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…

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