Behind the Happy Face

Labor pains flare in a worker's fight with Wal-Mart

From that point on, Lee felt as though he'd stepped into a Kafka novel. "They started monitoring me, watching the people who I socialized with. Like if you walked up to me and if you and I weren't even talking about union -- we may have been talking about something else -- they'd come and stand by us and ask, 'What are y'all doing?' and kind of break the conversation up," he says. "When I worked, they'd just stand in the aisle and watch me. I'd go on my breaks -- man, they'd follow me if I'd go to the restroom." He heard that a co-worker was making threats on his life because of the union talk and filed a complaint with Houston police, although an officer explained that because the threats weren't made directly to him, prosecutors probably wouldn't pursue them.

Hannette Lee, his wife, says the entire episode has drained the family and that they've even considered getting a gun for protection. She worked for Dillard's but has been on injury leave. They have six children between the ages of 14 and 21, and he says his $10.71 hourly wage is not enough to pay for Wal-Mart insurance, so they must rely on Medicaid.

Despite the alleged crackdown by Wal-Mart, he's passed out 15 union organizing cards and had seven signed and returned -- all from black employees. While the required number of sign-ups is likely to be disputed later, there may be another 140 or so still needed to authorize an election.

Lee gestures while arguing with fellow employees at the rally.
Michael Serazio
Lee gestures while arguing with fellow employees at the rally.

Those prospects look unlikely, although Lee also has been pursuing action on dual legal fronts. In August, he filed charges with the National Labor Relations Board, alleging that Wal-Mart violated his union organizing rights. This month, Lee also filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, contending that black employees are paid less than others and that a co-worker continued to racially harass him.

Management at Lee's store referred Press inquiries to the Wal-Mart public relations department. Spokeswoman Gallagher says she is not familiar with Lee's case. "I can tell you that Wal-Mart does not use scare tactics against our associates during these union campaigns," she says. "I can tell you that a lot of times our associates do have problems and questions they might have received from the unions, and we have a support team to answer and give them factual information on that.

"We just simply don't believe unionization is right for Wal-Mart," Gallagher adds. "We just don't think it would improve our relationship with associates."

Wal-Mart, with more than a million workers and 3,400 stores across the nation, is no stranger to lawsuits. The labor relations board has received 666 charges against the company since 1995. Recent newspaper reports have noted dozens of lawsuits over sexual discrimination and unpaid overtime. According to Nelson N. Lichtenstein, a history professor at the University of California-Santa Barbara and author of State of the Union: A Century of American Labor, Larry Lee's situation is pretty typical.

"What they do is try to make life as uncomfortable as possible for this guy because they can't fire him," says Lichtenstein. He argues that Wal-Mart's strategy of low wages and high turnover creates a culture of anti-unionism -- that since most workers feel as though they're just passing through, they don't care enough to improve things. Of late, however, unions have redoubled their efforts.

"Unions are more vigorous today than 15 years ago, in part because they're desperate. They know they must organize or die," he says, adding that, overall, organized labor is still doing poorly. According to data from the U.S. Department of Labor, in 2002, 13 percent of wage and salary workers were union members -- continuing a steady decline from 20 percent in 1983, the first year such statistics were tallied.

"What really happened was in 1998 when Wal-Mart announced their neighborhood markets format. This union had been, quite frankly, asleep at the switch," says Al Zack, assistant director of strategic programs at the United Food and Commercial Workers union. By heading into the unionized territory of Safeway and Kroger, Wal-Mart threatens their competitive edge. "They come in and say Wal-Mart is such a cheap bastard, we're going to take back your wages and benefits." He says that, at any given time, there are campaigns going on at two or three dozen stores, but that they reach a point and then die down.

"The problem is that you have a company that's so committed to keeping the union out that it's willing to break the law," contends Zack. "And the reason they are willing to break the law is that there are no penalties in labor law." Lichtenstein agrees that the labor board is pretty toothless and now exists only as a symbol.

"To organize Wal-Mart will require the sort of social movement we last saw with the civil rights movement," he argues. "And the obstacles are just as great."

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