Wal-Mart campaign tops UFCW agenda

Organizing Wal-Mart, dealing with the crisis in U.S. health care, and defeating George Bush in 2004 were recurring themes in the international convention of the United Food and Commercial Workers Union (UFCW) held in San Francisco July 31 to Aug. 3.

An unscheduled speaker, California Gov. Gray Davis, won an enthusiastic response from the 5,000 delegates when he described the right-wing recall attempt in that state as an effort by super-wealthy Republicans to overturn the will of California’s people by rolling back recent gains for working families in family leave, minimum wage and workers’ compensation legislation.

Five Democratic candidates participated in a presidential forum focused on health care. All called for expanded programs to cover more uninsured Americans. Missouri Rep. Richard Gephardt, Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry and former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean called for tax incentives to employers to implement their proposals, while Ohio Rep. Dennis Kucinich and former Illinois Sen. Carol Moseley Braun advocated doing away entirely with private health care plans and implementing a Canada-style single-payer system.

“Every single employer health care program is under stress right now,” said UFCW spokesman Danny Beagle. The union says the health care cost crisis, along with competition from employers who do not provide insurance, threatens to destroy the employment-based health care system.

Besides its legislative focus, the union is waging a massive effort in 26 states and Canada to organize the retail giant Wal-Mart, which has 1.1 million employees in the U.S. With low wages and high insurance premiums, few Wal-Mart employees can afford the company’s insurance program, while the enormous cost of medical insurance puts unionized retailers at a tremendous competitive disadvantage, the union says.

Wal-Mart, the world’s largest employer, racked up a quarter trillion dollars in sales last year and will account for one-half of the U.S.’s retail food sales by 2008, the union predicts. The fact that Wal-Mart is planning to open 300 new stores in 2004 – many of them in urban locations with high union density – sets the stage for fierce struggles with the union, which is encouraging resistance to the anti-union giant’s expansion.

The UFCW has 1.4 million members in supermarket, food processing, meatpacking, garment, health care and retail industries.