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Thursday, July 10, 2008

A lesson in union avoidance

No company does more to avoid unions than Walmart. Case in point - Wal-Mart Stores Inc. (NLRB 6/20/08). In the summer of 2000, Walmart's Kingman, Arizona, Tire and Lube Express (TLE) employees contacted United Food and Commercial Workers. The Union filed a representation petition on August 28. Two days later, a labor relations team from Walmart's corporate headquarters arrived at the store. During the organizing campaign, members of that labor relations team did such things as: threaten to postpone any merit pay increases for the TLE employees during any contract negotiations; engage in surveillance of employees' union activities; grant benefits and improved working conditions to discourage employees from supporting the Union; discriminatorily and disparately apply and enforce its no-harassment policies to the detriment of employees who supported the Union; and discharge and deny COBRA coverage to employees for supporting the Union.

It is not much of a surprise that the NLRB found that Walmart engaged in unfair labor practices. The point, however, is not whether Walmart violated the NLRA, but in how Walmart handled the litigation. The organizing campaign started in August 2000. The NLRB issued its final decision and remedial order nearly 8 years later. And that timeline does not include any appeals to federal court, which will add at least another 12 - 18 months. Does anyone doubt for a second that Walmart's strategy is to drag this process out as long as possible, making it as costly, difficult, and time consuming for the union and its members? Does anyone want to wage a bet on how long it will take Walmart to actually sit down and bargain with this union? By the time Walmart has exhausted all of its appeals on every claim the Union could possibly bring, will any of the original LTE employees be left at the store? If not, how can the Union say a majority of the bargaining unit even wants a union? The de-certification petition will surely follow.

The lesson from this case is that a successful organizing campaign is not necessarily the end game for a unionized workforce. The laws might be tilted towards the unions, but for companies that have the resources and the patience, the process can be used to their advantage to ultimately break the union.

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