Wal-Mart bullies workers on elections

Charging retail giant Wal-Mart with illegally pressuring employees to vote for Republicans and John McCain in November, labor unions and community organizations filed a formal complaint last week with the Federal Elections Commission (FEC).

Wal-Mart held mandatory meetings at which thousands of employees were told how to vote in the upcoming election, according to the complaint.

Federal law prohibits employers from pressuring hourly employees to vote a certain way in a federal election.

One worker told the Wall Street Journal that the message of the mandatory Wal-Mart meetings was clear. 'I am not a stupid person. They were telling me how to vote.” Other employees were told that voting for McCain was the right choice to make.

Both the AFL-CIO and Change to Win federations, along with American Rights at Work and WakeUpWalMart.com filed the complaint Aug. 15, which said Wal-Mart made “prohibited corporate expenditures by expressly advocating against Senator Obama’s election to employees...”

The formal complaint further requested the FEC “immediately open an investigation to determine whether a violation occurred and, if so, to take all appropriate steps to remedy that violation of federal election law.”

In a press statement announcing the decision to file the complaint, AFL-CIO President John Sweeney said, “Wal-Mart has bullied its workers and managers for years. Now it wants to bully the political process, and the FEC should take Wal-Mart’s threats very seriously.”

Change to Win Executive Director Chris Chafe, in a statement released as the Wall Street Journal story broke, said, “In an election season driven by the desire for change and a demand by working families for better jobs, better wages, pension security and health care for all Americans, it should come as no surprise that Wal-Mart is weighing-in heavily – and possibly illegally – with its employees over the choices they face this November.'

The labor movement complaint noted that Wal-Mart used the pressure tactic against its employees because it opposes the Employee Free Choice Act, a bill that would stiffen penalties against employers that use illegal measures to prevent employees from joining unions. The bill has already passed in the House of Representatives but was stalled by a McCain-led Republican filibuster in the Senate.

New details emerged in the press Aug. 14 that show Wal-Mart managers leading the meetings spread misinformation about the EFCA. A worker at a Wal-Mart in the South made a digital recording at one of the mandatory meetings.

The leader, in the recording, tells employees that their wages may be reduced to minimum wage for up to three months before a contract is negotiated, that union authorization cards violate workers’ right to privacy by including their Social Security numbers on them and that if a small unit within a store votes to unionize, the entire store will be unionized.

“If you have 10 associates in a photo lab and six sign union authorization cards, now the store is unionized,” the meeting leader told employees. “Six people can make a decision for 350 people,” which is about the normal number of workers at a Wal-Mart super-store.

Labor lawyers say that remarks like those are inaccurate not just of the EFCA but of labor law in general and, as such, are illegal and in violation of the currently in-place National Labor Relations Act.

Wal-Mart’s violation of election law seems to be backfiring in more ways than one. Two workers on a break outside a Wal-Mart just west of Chicago told the World that they had never even heard of the EFCA until the company started its campaign against it. “That law is exactly what we need,” one of them said, adding, “now I have even more reason to vote for Obama.”

According to the recording, the meeting leader, a human resources manager, began by saying she was going to talk about the company and unions and “a little bit of politics,” specifically the EFCA. “If Democrats get the votes they need and elect a Democratic president, they said it will be the first bill presented and that’s scary,” she said.

More scary, however, is Wal-Mart’s systematic violation of workers rights, documented in a 2007 report by Human Rights Watch. The report said the company uses unlawful threats of retaliation, spying, and mandatory 'captive audience' meetings to instill its anti-union message.

Most of these actions are illegal, but sanctions are so minimal that Wal-Mart has little incentive to obey the law, the report stated. The Employee Free Choice Act would provide that incentive.

Barack Obama has pledged to sign the bill if elected. In addition to signing the labor rights bill, Obama said he would reform the federal agencies that oversee labor relations to prevent them from being 'tilted against workers.'

“Wal-Mart has shown exactly why our nation needs the Employee Free Choice Act – we must outlaw the kind of behavior for which Wal-Mart is famous and give workers a free and fair choice on whether to form a union,” Sweeney said.

jwendland@politicalafffairs.net. John Wojcik contributed to this story.