Behind the Happy Face

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

Around 3:30 p.m., two men walk through the Wal-Mart parking lot just off Interstate 45 in Friendswood. A bald plainclothes police officer trails ten feet behind. As they near the entrance, a small crowd of employees scatters.

Once inside, the pair breeze past the shopping carts and ask a cashier to get someone in management. Brad Ulmer, the supercenter's manager, walks over with a grimace like he's trying to swallow shards of glass.

"I'm Richard Shaw. We're with the AFL-CIO." Shaw is, in fact, the county's AFL-CIO secretary-treasurer. His companion, E. Dale Wortham, is president. Hands are extended. Hands are shaken. "As you know, there's a union organizing drive going on in this store." Shaw lobs a pause in there.

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

"We're busy helping customers today," Ulmer responds, his jaw tightening.

"I know that. And I have an appeal for fairness agreement that we would like you all to sign--"

"Sorry."

"Or consider signing--"

"Sorry."

"So that the employees can organize free of intimidation, harassment and termination."

"We understand what you're saying -- but we cannot -- we cannot help you today. We're taking care of our customers. But appreciate it!" Ulmer withdraws politely. "Have a good one!" The labor leaders also cheerfully exit the store. This was to be expected.

About an hour later, the screaming starts. On a patch of grass beside the parking lot, a broad strain of union muscle has assembled: refinery workers, electricians, grocery store clerks and shaggy-haired, rabble-rousing professors. Shaw calls out chants from a bullhorn and the group roars its responses.

In the distance, Wal-Mart personnel trickle out from the store and look on with frozen faces. A handful of blue vests walks to the median opposite the protest and screeches chants of its own -- pro-Wal-Mart, anti-union chants. They wave cardboard signs with scrawled messages: "Wal-Mart, my home away from home!" and "I don't need anyone to talk for me!" This was not expected.

Wal-Mart big rigs start rumbling by, turning circles along the street. Houston mayoral candidate Sylvester Turner pops out of an SUV, shaking hands and squinting for snapshots, as the sun curves low in the late-afternoon sky. A few beefy union types shout across to the median: "Anybody over there know Jim Jones?!" Another: "Don't drink the Kool-Aid!" His buddies chuckle.

By now, a rugged black man has taken over the bullhorn, and the union crowd huddles around to listen. As he speaks, a gruff voice mutters in the back, "Man, he's got big balls, man."


Larry Lee never loved his job as a grocery stocker at Wal-Mart, but things were better than the "pure hell" he says it became. The 41-year-old started working at the Friendswood supercenter for $7.50 an hour in September 2001. He switched to the night shift after a year, working from 10 p.m. to 7 a.m.

Some of his gripes sound like typical workplace bitching; others have a sharper edge. He claims that management would change their days off without checking first and that they prevented black employees from working together. He thinks he was unfairly passed over for promotions and raises, partly because of his race and partly because he didn't socialize with supervisors off the job. He also says that one co-worker started harassing him racially and calling him "nigger" without being reprimanded.

Marvin Diaz, a 19-year-old former night-shift worker, recalls the harassment. "They were always trying to take him. They were always trying to get me into it," says Diaz, who claims that he, too, was treated worse there than in any previous job. "When I saw all that happening, I wanted to transfer and they said, 'There's no way out of this.'"

According to company spokeswoman Christi Gallagher, Wal-Mart has an "open-door policy" that allows disgruntled associates to speak with any level of management if they have questions or concerns "without fear of retaliation." Yet when he tried to talk to management about disparities in pay and unprofessional treatment, Lee says, he got little response. In fact, he says things got even worse and that his supervisors piled more work on him as punishment. "A lot of associates have made complaints and they've isolated these people and gave these people a hard time and kind of put some fear in them, where you don't make a complaint anymore," says Lee. He sent a letter about the problems by certified mail to the district manager. It was refused and returned to him.

"That's when I decided to form this union," he says. He picked up union cards from the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 408 and started passing them out to co-workers he thought were having the same problems. The cards authorize the UFCW to represent workers in collective bargaining. When they get at least 30 percent of the employees to sign up, the National Labor Relations Board can conduct an election for the entire workplace on the issue of unionization.

Store managers soon discovered the union drive, grilled workers about it and warned Lee he would face consequences if he continued. Lee says that one night they brought in a group of furious day-shift supervisors to intimidate the night crew. "When they came through those doors, it was almost like the army was coming in!"

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.

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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