Behind the Happy Face

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.

"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--"


"Or consider signing--"


"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.

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Michael Serazio