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How Wal-Mart Keeps Unions at Bay

Organizing the nation's No. 1 employer would give labor a lift

Sam's Club store No. 6382, Spring Mountain Rd., Las Vegas--epicenter of a critical battle between labor and management. On one side, employees were trying to bring in the United Food & Commercial Workers (UFCW) to represent 5,000 Wal-Mart Stores Inc. (WMT ) workers around the city. Aided by 15 organizers, a Web site, and a weekly radio call-in show just for Wal-Mart workers, the union won enough support to petition the National Labor Relations Board for a vote last fall among the 200 workers at Club 6382. On the other side, the retailing behemoth, which mounted a blistering counteroffensive. It parachuted in a dozen labor-relations troops from its Bentonville (Ark.) headquarters, instructing local managers in a fierce anti-union campaign, including surveillance of employees and the firing of several union sympathizers, the union claims. Wal-Mart denies it did anything illegal.

It was a fight that would end in stalemate--for the time being. Even so, it illustrates just how hard is for unions to organize in today's workplace--and how hard employers are resisting. In the case of Sam's Club, the union concluded that workers were too intimidated to proceed with a vote. Instead, it filed dozens of unfair labor practice complaints with the NLRB, effectively postponing the election indefinitely. Even today, says Mary Lou Wagoner, an employee organizer at the Spring Mountain store, "people are just afraid." On Wal-Mart's side, Coleman Peterson, executive vice-president of the company's People Div., says there's no corporate support for illegal tactics. But he's clear that Wal-Mart doesn't want a union. "Where associates feel free to communicate openly with their management, why would they need a third party to represent them?" he asks. Wal-Mart has won all but one of seven union votes in the U.S.