XI. Conclusion

Wal-Mart is a global industry leader and arguably a new model for twenty-first century business.  Like General Motors in the United States in the 1950s, Wal-Mart’s decisions reverberate throughout the US economy and beyond.  The company’s choices on a wide range of operating policies matter, and its approach to workers’ rights is no exception. 

Instead of leading the way on respect for workers’ rights, however, Wal-Mart has exploited the many loopholes in US labor law to undermine workers’ freedom to decide whether to organize a union and, in the process, has become a poster child for what is wrong with US labor law.  As documented in detail in this report, Wal-Mart has translated its hostility towards union formation into an unabashed, sophisticated, and aggressive strategy to derail worker organizing at its US stores that violates workers’ internationally recognized right to freedom of association. 

In most cases, Wal-Mart begins to indoctrinate workers and managers from the moment they are hired, stressing in multiple ways, in multiple settings, and through multiple media that unions are bad for them and bad for the company.  If workers attempt to organize, the company sends its Labor Relations Team from headquarters, which arrives almost immediately to try to squash the nascent organizing effort.  These experts from Bentonville, Arkansas, rely primarily on tactics that largely comport with US law through which they inundate workers with an anti-union message and allow little space for opposing views.

The cumulative effect of these tactics that largely comport with US law is that many workers fear expressing pro-union views or even questioning Wal-Mart’s anti-union bias.  With little to no access to information about the potential benefits of self-organizing, most workers also accept wholesale the company’s relentless, well-honed, negative characterization of unions.  

Wal-Mart also repeatedly has used illegal tactics that violate international standards to stop union formation when workers have begun to organize.  Wal-Mart has unlawfully spied on union activity, suddenly improved working conditions and addressed worker complaints to undermine union support, threatened workers with benefit loss if they organized, discriminatorily fired union supporters, turned a blind eye to a union opponent’s harassment of pro-union workers, discriminatorily applied company policies against union supporters, transferred union supporters out of and union opponents into proposed bargaining units, coercively interrogated workers about union activities, and discriminatorily banned discussion about unions.   

The net result of Wal-Mart’s hard-hitting strategy to defeat worker organizing is that during union drives, there is palpable fear among Wal-Mart workers of going against their company’s wishes and forming a union.  Wal-Mart’s strategy has worked.  There are no unions at Wal-Mart’s US stores. 

This is not a model that should be replicated.  Twenty-first century business should not be based on violation of workers’ internationally recognized human right to organize trade unions for the protection of their interests.  As noted by the Council on Ethics for the Norwegian Government Pension Fund-Global, which recommended divestment from Wal-Mart to avoid potential complicity in serious workers’ rights violations, “Although it is legitimate [for Wal-Mart] to take steps to hold down prices on its merchandise and increase the company’s profits, it is not legitimate to do so by violating applicable minimum standards.”930  If Wal-Mart’s strategy to thwart worker organizing is not stopped, there is significant danger that this is precisely the model that will be adopted.

Wal-Mart should change course.  It should immediately put an end to tactics that coercively interfere with workers’ decisions on organizing.  Human Rights Watch also urges Wal-Mart, as an industry leader, to go further and pledge to remain neutral during union organizing campaigns, letting workers decide the matter for themselves.  This would include changing internal polices and allowing union representatives reasonable opportunities to present their views to workers off the clock in non-work areas of Wal-Mart stores. 

As has been outlined in this report, it is also imperative that the US government respond to Wal-Mart’s conduct effectively and expeditiously to prevent Wal-Mart from violating workers’ right to organize and other companies from emulating Wal-Mart’s conduct.  While in part this can be achieved through more rigorous enforcement of existing laws, legislative change is also necessary to create a more level playing field for workers attempting to exercise their right to freedom of association.

At present, US labor law falls far short of international standards.  Workers in the United States have no right to receive in their workplaces a fair balance of employer and union views on organizing because union representatives can be banned from responding to an employer’s anti-union message and even from distributing union information on company property.  Employers can threaten workers with job loss if they strike for economic reasons.  And penalties for violating protections that do exist are so minimal that they fail to deter employers such as Wal-Mart from breaking the law.

Union elections cannot be free and fair when employers face minimal consequences for violating US labor law; workers hear almost exclusively anti-union views, underscored by the inherent power imbalance of the employment relationship; workers have good reason to fear permanent replacement if they exercise their right to strike; and, too often, employers spy on and interrogate workers to ascertain their union sympathies. 

To effectively safeguard the fundamental right of workers to choose whether or not to organize, US labor law reform, including enactment of the Employee Free Choice Act, is essential.  A more democratic union selection process must be restored by requiring employers to recognize union formation based on card check, with safeguards to ensure the cards were freely signed.  Penalties for labor law violation must be strengthened.  Employers must be banned from permanently replacing striking workers.  Workers must be guaranteed the right to hear and receive information about the benefits, not just the risks, of union formation.  The National Labor Relations Board, responsible for enforcing US labor law, must do so swiftly and effectively, using all tools available to the agency to ensure respect for workers’ right to freedom of association.

The importance of preventing Wal-Mart from systematically interfering with workers’ right to organize cannot be overstated.  The future of workers’ right to freedom of association is at stake when the world’s largest company can regularly violate this fundamental right with virtual impunity in the world’s largest economy.

930 Recommendation from the Council of Ethics for the Norwegian Government Petroleum Fund, November 15, 2005.