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Union tries new tack at Wal-Mart

Union tries new tack at Wal-Mart

By Steven Greenhouse

New York Times / June 15, 2011

After numerous failed attempts to unionize Wal-Mart stores, the nation’s main union for retail workers has decided to try a different approach: It has helped create a new, nonunion group of Wal-Mart Stores Inc. employees that intends to press for better pay, benefits, and most of all, more respect at work.

The group, Organization United for Respect at Walmart, or OUR Walmart for short, says it has quietly signed up thousands of members, and it is going public this week with a website,, and a Facebook page. Organizers say they have more than 50 members at some stores, and they hope to soon have tens of thousands. Wal-Mart has nearly 1.4 million workers nationwide.

Although the website of OUR Walmart depicts the organization as a grass-roots effort by Wal-Mart workers, the United Food and Commercial Workers has provided a sizable sum — the union will not say how much — to help the group get started. In addition, the organizers are receiving help from ASGK Public Strategies, a consulting firm long associated with David Axelrod, President Obama’s top political strategist.

OUR Walmart has organized gatherings of 10 to 80 workers in Dallas, Seattle, Los Angeles, and other cities, in which workers chewed over how they would like to improve Wal-Mart. One big concern, they said, was low wages.

Unlike a union, the group will not negotiate contracts on behalf of workers. But its members could benefit from federal laws that protect workers from retaliation for engaging in collective discussion and action.

Wal-Mart officials say that the new organization is a stalking horse for eventual unionization, and they say the retail union is intent on pushing up Wal-Mart’s wages and slowing its expansion to help protect the union’s members at other retailers from competition.

“There’s nothing new about the fact that labor unions want to unionize Wal-Mart,’’ said David Tovar, a Wal-Mart spokesman. “This is an effort to attract media attention to further their political agenda.’’

The new group is the latest iteration of worker groups aimed at pressuring Wal-Mart. Earlier groups included Walmart Watch and Wake-Up Wal-Mart, both backed by unions, as well as the Wal-Mart Workers Association, a short-lived and foundation-backed group comprised of Florida Wal-Mart employees.

“We’ve got Wal-Mart associates in large numbers coming to us and saying, ‘We need a voice. This company is mistreating us. We want to stay here, but we need to be able to change the way we’re being treated,’ ’’ said Dan Schlademan, director of Making Change at Wal-Mart, a division of the union. “The best thing the UFCW can be is a catalyst to help associates build an organization.’’

Wal-Mart has aggressively battled organizing drives — it even closed a Canadian store after its workers voted to unionize. Schlademan acknowledged that it was hard to get a majority of workers at a particular store to vote in support of a union.

© Copyright 2011 Globe Newspaper Company.