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Report: Wal-Mart Violates Worker Rights, Fosters “Culture of Fear” to Prevent Employees from Forming Unions

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On this May Day, the world’s largest company is being accused of using strong-arm and illegal methods to undermine what is considered a cornerstone of workers’ rights. In a new report released today, Human Rights Watch says the retail giant Wal-Mart has used an “arsenal of unlawful tactics” to foster “a culture of fear” to prevent employees from forming unions. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Today is May Day or International Workers’ Day. In 1886 the American Federation of Labor declared a national strike to demand an eight-hour work day. In 1889 the Socialist International declared May 1st a day of demonstrations. In 1947 a joint session of Congress pronounced May 1st “Loyalty Day,” but it’s celebrated still as a worker holiday around the world.

As millions take to the streets here in the United States and around the world, the world’s largest company is being accused of using strong-arm and illegal methods to undermine what is considered a cornerstone of workers’ rights. In a new report released today, Human Rights Watch says the retail giant Wal-Mart has used an “arsenal of unlawful tactics” to foster “a culture of fear” to prevent workers from forming unions. The tactics include employee spying, intimidation and barring discussions or materials on union activity. In one case, Wal-Mart managers re-positioned security cameras to monitor union supporters. According to Human Rights Watch, Wal-Mart workers have also been fired or threatened with the loss of jobs or benefits.

While several other major corporations have been faulted for anti-union practices, Human Rights Watch says Wal-Mart is unique “for the sheer magnitude and aggressiveness of its anti-union apparatus.” Wal-Mart employs more than a million workers at nearly 4,000 stores in the U.S. Not one of its stores has managed to form a union.

Carol Pier is the senior labor rights and trade researcher for Human Rights Watch. She researched and wrote the report, “Discounting Rights: Wal-Mart’s Violation of U.S. Workers’ Right to Freedom of Association.” Carol Pier joins us from our Washington, D.C., studio. Welcome to Democracy Now!, Carol.

CAROL PIER: Thank you so much. It’s a pleasure to be here.

AMY GOODMAN: Why don’t you lay out your major findings in this report?

CAROL PIER: Our major findings is that Wal-Mart is a case study in what is wrong with U.S. labor law. As you mentioned, there are other companies in the country that take advantage of the weaknesses in U.S. labor law to try to prevent union formation at their workplaces. And there are companies that take advantage of the ineffective labor law enforcement in this country. But Wal-Mart stands out, as you said, for the sheer aggressiveness and the magnitude of its strategy to defeat union formation in the United States and prevent workers from exercising their right to organize.

And the report explains how Wal-Mart uses both lawful tactics, tactics that comport with the very feeble standards of U.S. labor law, and tactics that violate U.S. labor law, as well. And together, these tactics create such a climate of fear and intimidation at Wal-Mart stores across the country that workers are unable to freely choose whether or not to form a union.

AMY GOODMAN: Wal-Mart declined our request for an interview today but did issue a statement in response to Human Rights Watch. Wal-Mart says, “This pro-union report uses incomplete interviews and unsubstantiated allegations from as much as 6-7 years ago to support a union-backed bill before congress that eliminates workers’ rights to a private ballot vote on unionization. Contrary to the allegations in this report, Wal-Mart respects our associates’ right to a free and fair unionization vote through a private, government supervised process and we remain committed to compliance with U.S. laws regarding workers’ right to unionize.”

The Wal-Mart statement goes on to say, “The fact is, less than 5% of all retail workers in the United States are part of a union so the current trend is not unique to Wal-Mart. Wal-Mart provides an environment of open communications and gives our associates every opportunity to express their ideas, comments and concerns. It is because of our efforts to foster such an environment that our associates have repeatedly rejected unionization attempts.” Carol Pier, your response?

CAROL PIER: There’s so many things I’d like to respond to. I’ll start first with the accusation that the report is incomplete and contains unsubstantiated claims. The report is 210 pages long and contains 932 footnotes, and we spent over two-and-a-half years researching it. It is a very thorough and objective documentation of Wal-Mart’s response to union activity at its stores across the country.

We attempted to get in touch — we got in touch with Wal-Mart on three separate occasions in writing, requesting to meet with them to get their perspective, to get their response to our findings. And on all three occasions, they declined.

Second, I would like to say that this is not a union-backed report. This is not a pro-union report. This is a report that is pro-freedom of association. We are a human rights organization that believes that workers should have the right to choose whether or not to form a union. If they choose not to, that’s fine; if they choose to, that is fine. But we believe, because it is a fundamental human right that is protected in the key instruments of the United Nations that workers have the right to freedom of association, and that is what is denied to Wal-Mart workers.

Wal-Mart says that workers have an opportunity at their stores to freely choose whether or not to organize and that they would be allowed to have a vote within the NLRB process, the National Labor Relations Board. That’s what they were referring to in their response. That is a very disingenuous response to our report, because, although perhaps workers could have a vote, what Wal-Mart does from the moment that it detects union activity at a store, is it responds with a hard-hitting and aggressive anti-union campaign. The company has a union hotline at headquarters that managers are required to call any time union activity is detected. The company sends in a labor relations team, which is a rapid reaction force that comes in from headquarters and starts to have meetings with the workers, telling them about the terrible consequences of union formation, showing them anti-union videos in which unions are depicted as antiquated organizations and union representatives are shown as aggressive and unsavory characters. And the company does not provide a meaningful opportunity for the union supporters and union representatives to respond. It’s not required to under U.S. labor law, and it doesn’t. So workers are bombarded with Wal-Mart’s anti-union mantra, repeatedly, over and over again. And that is what they hear. And that does not create a free and fair climate in which to have an election.

Let’s put it in the political context. Let’s go back to the 2004 presidential campaign in the United States. What if George W. Bush had unlimited access to the airwaves, to radio, to television? He could have campaign rallies, at which the general public was strongly urged, almost required to attend. And on the flipside, John Kerry was only able to access the voting public by sending campaign workers door to door. That is the unbalanced campaign atmosphere of a union campaign at Wal-Mart stores. That is not a democratic process. That is not a fair process.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to play a clip now from what’s believed to be a Wal-Mart employee training video. This is a tape purportedly shown to new Wal-Mart employees. It shows two newly hired workers, a human resources manager and two longstanding employees discussing union activity. Human Rights Watch has posted the tape online, but Wal-Mart has refused to confirm its authenticity.

WAL-MART EMPLOYEE 1: You know, where I was before, a few people thought they needed the union. They were trying to get me to sign this card, but, you know, I wasn’t so sure.

WAL-MART HR MANAGER: Well, here at Wal-Mart, we have a great group of associates who take pride in how they work and where they work. They don’t want a union.


WAL-MART HR MANAGER: Because they know a union could just mess it up.

WAL-MART EMPLOYEE 2: Wal-Mart respects you, respects you and what you contribute to the company.

WAL-MART EMPLOYEE 1: That money and respect, that’s good.

WAL-MART EMPLOYEE 2: Lots of respect. Back when I was in a union, I was just a number.

WAL-MART EMPLOYEE 1: OK, then what does a union do for you?

WAL-MART EMPLOYEE 3: Well, if a union comes in, all it can do is negotiate, you know, ask for things and negotiate contracts.

WAL-MART EMPLOYEE 2: And, Julie, if a union got in here, every benefit we got could go on the negotiating table, every one of them. With all our benefits, well, we risk losing a lot.

WAL-MART HR MANAGER: I was just telling them that we have regular meetings with our associates. And at the meetings we ask associates for feedback on various issues.

WAL-MART EMPLOYEE 3: So you’re saying you ask us what needs to be fixed.

WAL-MART EMPLOYEE 2: They sure do. A lot of good changes have come from those meetings.

WAL-MART EMPLOYEE 1: Companies with unions, they don’t ask employees things like that?

WAL-MART EMPLOYEE 2: No way! No, with the union, you don’t talk to your boss. You’ve got to go to your union steward, and if he likes what you say —

WAL-MART EMPLOYEE 3: Yeah, “if”!

That’s when I knew Julie had really lost interest in any kind of union talk. And both of us — well, all of us — every day we see how our management listens and cares. You know, there’s no way we want a union coming in. We could lose a lot of the good things we just talked about. So welcome to Wal-Mart. You’re going to like it here. You’ve picked a great place to work.

AMY GOODMAN: Carol Pier of Human Rights Watch, where did you get this videotape?

CAROL PIER: We got it from two separate sources. Robert Greenwald is a documentary filmmaker, and we also got it from a local union. But this is not the first time that this video has been shown. It has been shown before on a PBS special. It has also been referenced in a book by Barbara Ehrenreich, in which she discusses Wal-Mart. We are very, very confident that this video is a training video that is shown at Wal-Mart stores. But, as you said, we contacted the company asking them to please authenticate the video, and they refused to do so.

AMY GOODMAN: I was just looking at the piece on your report in BusinessWeek, the 210-page report. It says this is only the second time in Human Rights Watch’s 29-year history that it’s issued a book-size report on a corporation. The first one was on Enron in 1999. Why have you done such a massive piece? What has been the reasoning in Human Rights Watch taking on, you know, major human rights issues around the world, now focusing here on Wal-Mart?

CAROL PIER: We took on Wal-Mart’s violations of its workers’ right to freedom of association, because Wal-Mart is the largest private corporation in the world. It is the largest private employer in the United States, the largest private employer in the world. And its conduct towards its workers, therefore, matters. So when we heard allegations of violations of workers’ right to form and join trade unions and we realized that there was no other report that really documented in detail the many, many tactics that composed Wal-Mart’s anti-union strategy, setting out a road map, if you will, which is what we set out to do with our report, of Wal-Mart strategy to thwart union formation, violate its workers rights, we realized that this was a need, that this is an important issue, and that we needed to step up and show how Wal-Mart violates its workers’ right to freedom of association, taking advantage of weak U.S. labor laws, because the potential impact of Wal-Mart continuing this conduct and the United States continuing to have labor laws that are so weak that they are unable to prevent companies like Wal-Mart from violating workers’ rights, the consequences of that are just too terrible to consider with respect to the right of workers to organize in this country.

We call on Wal-Mart to change course, and we call on the United States to reform its labor laws. We call on the U.S. Senate to pass the Employee Free Choice Act, which passed the House on March 1st. President Bush has threatened to veto this important piece of labor legislation. We call on him to reconsider and to sign it into law. It would close many of the loopholes in weak U.S. labor law that help facilitate companies like Wal-Mart in their efforts to violate workers’ rights.

AMY GOODMAN: Carol Pier, I want to thank you for being with us, senior labor rights and trade researcher for Human Rights. She researched and wrote the report “Discounting Rights: Wal-Mart’s Violation of U.S. Workers’ Right to Freedom of Association.” We will link to the more than 200-page report on our website at democracynow.org.

CAROL PIER: Thank you so much. It was a pleasure.

AMY GOODMAN: Thank you for being with us.

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