Many people think of worker organizing, collective bargaining, and strikes solely as union-versus-management disputes that do not raise human rights concerns. Human Rights Watch approaches workers choice to use these tools, however, as the exercise of basic rights and the decision of individual, autonomous actors, quite apart from employers or unions institutional interests.
In this spirit, between 2004 and early 2007, Human Rights Watch interviewed current and former Wal-Mart workers and managers, analyzed cases against Wal-Mart charging the company with violating US labor and employment laws, and reviewed countless publications addressing a wide range of issues related to working conditions at the company. This report is based on that research.
Between March and August 2005, Human Rights Watch conducted field research for this report, and through January 2007, we continued to gather testimony through telephone interviews and email correspondence. During 2005, Human Rights Watch traveled to Kingman, Arizona; Phoenix, Arizona; Las Vegas, Nevada; Aiken, South Carolina; Loveland, Colorado; Greeley, Colorado; Cleveland, Ohio; and New Castle, Pennsylvania, to collect information for this report. We interviewed forty-one current and former Wal-Mart workers and managers, many of whom requested anonymity for fear of retaliation by Wal-Mart. We also met with labor lawyers and union organizers. In some cases, we also conducted follow-up telephone interviews from Washington, DC.
Through Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests to the NLRBs thirty-two regional offices, Human Rights Watch also obtained hundreds of pages of documents related to the 292 cases alleging unfair labor practice charges filed against Wal-Mart between 2000 and mid-2005. We reviewed these documents, as well as the decisions in cases that came before NLRB administrative law judges (ALJs) and the five-member Board in Washington, DC. We believe that this is the most comprehensive attempt by an independent organization to date to obtain and analyze NLRB cases against Wal-Mart.
Based on this analysis, as well as additional reports from sources familiar with worker organizing activity at Wal-Mart facilities across the country, Human Rights Watch selected the cities and towns to which we traveled in 2005, all of which had been the site of or were near worker organizing drives at Wal-Mart stores between January 2000 and August 2005. The forty-one current and former Wal-Mart workers and managers with whom Human Rights Watch spoke were all employed at those facilities during or after the union organizing campaigns. Therefore, although these workers and managers constitute only a small fraction of Wal-Marts total US workforce, they represent those who have experienced first hand the companys aggressive strategy to defeat worker organizing whenever it begins. Some supported the union; some were opposed; and others were ambivalent. Each, however, had important insights and perspectives to share regarding working conditions at Wal-Mart stores and the companys response to workers attempts to exercise their right to freedom of association.
Human Rights Watch also repeatedly contacted Wal-Mart to obtain the companys views on the issues that we examine in this report and to request meetings with the company to hear Wal-Marts perspective directly. Wal-Mart repeatedly refused to meet with us, however, and provided only limited responses in writing and over the phone.
On August 24, 2005, Human Rights Watch sent a letter to Wal-Mart corporate executive officer (CEO) H. Lee Scott requesting meetings with members of Wal-Marts Labor Relations Team and any other members of Wal-Mart management with specific information regarding the cases discussed in our report. We followed up with a telephone call on September 12, 2005, with Terrence Terry Srsen, Wal-Marts vice president of labor relations. Srsen told Human Rights Watch, We are not going to arrange for a meeting and, instead, explained that Human Rights Watch should refer to the publicly available materials with the NLRB for the answers to our questions. Human Rights Watch requested a letter confirming that Wal-Mart would not meet with us, but Srsen refused.25
On September 28, 2005, Human Rights Watch sent another letter to Scott that urged Wal-Mart to reconsider its refusal to meet with us and included fourteen questions that we wanted to discuss, including requests for documents and videos referenced in the cases addressed in our report. Human Rights Watch followed up with a telephone call on October 5, 2005, when we again spoke with Srsen. Once more, Srsen refused to arrange a meeting. He also declined to respond to our questions or provide copies of the videos and documents we requested. He said, Weve responded before the Labor Board to all of those issues, and noted that Human Rights Watch was free to obtain from the NLRB those videos and documents that were exhibits in NLRB cases. Srsen noted generally, however, We can have an election at any location where the union has 30 percent or greater support, and thats what the national law provides, and we certainly agree with that. There are some . . . elections that the union has blocked where we could have elections next week if they would file a request to proceed. . . . The union controls this process. Srsen again refused to provide written confirmation that Wal-Mart would not meet with us or respond to our specific questions. Instead, he told Human Rights Watch, I just responded to you now. I think thats an appropriate response.26
Human Rights Watch sent a third letter to Scott on September 27, 2006, requesting a meeting with members of Wal-Marts Labor Relations Team and other members of Wal-Mart management. On October 5, Human Rights Watch received a response from David Tovar, Wal-Marts director of media relations, that said, [W]e must respectfully decline your request to interview our associates.27
Human Rights Watch regrets Wal-Marts refusal to meet with us. We have incorporated testimonies from current and former Wal-Mart workers and managers into this report to supplement the information we have gathered from NLRB and other materials. We consider it essential to present a fair, balanced, and accurate recounting of events in our report, and we had hoped to be able to include the perspectives of Wal-Mart Labor Relations Team members and other Wal-Mart managers gathered through in-person interviews. Unfortunately, this has not been possible because of Wal-Marts repeated refusal to meet with us.
25 Human Rights Watch telephone interview, Terrence Terry Srsen, vice president of labor relations, Wal-Mart Stores, Inc., Bentonville, Arkansas, September 12, 2005.
26 Human Rights Watch telephone interview, Terry Srsen, Bentonville, Arkansas, October 5, 2005.
27 Letter from David Tovar, director of media relations, Wal-Mart Stores, Inc., to Human Rights Watch, October 5, 2006.