Walmart really hates unions. That news doesn’t come as a surprise—the US-based retailing giant has been engaging in unionbusting tactics for years, including when presidential candidate Hillary Clinton was on its board of directors, a sin she has yet to answer for in all her talk of being a folksy, down home candidate who cares about the working class. While labour organisers have always been aware of the company’s anti-union work, a newly-released training video brings the issue to chilling light. In the course of a nearly ten minute video, smiling Walmart representatives tell new ‘associates’ why working for Walmart is so great—and why unions are terrible.
The video, which the company claims dates to 2009 although it freely admits similar training materials continue to be used, uses very familiar anti-union tactics. The spectre of having to pay union dues ‘like taxes, without getting anything back’ looms large, and worried-faced representatives earnestly inform the viewer that the union will be able to do things without their consent—damn collective bargaining!
Given Walmart’s most recent anti-union antics, the release of the video seems particularly timely. The company recently closed five stores for ‘plumbing problems,’ for instance, neatly dodging the fact that all five stores has been involved in labor organising—who knew retail and service unions could terminally bust pipes just by threatening to hold a unionisation vote.
‘Walmart,’ viewers learn, ‘just isn’t that kind of place.’ In other words, it’s not one where workers receive fair pay—the company only recently increased wages, but by an amount so small that many of those beloved associates still have to apply for food assistance—or one where workers are able to advocate for themselves. Smiling associates eye the camera nervously as they explain that they feel totally comfortable approaching their supervisors with questions and concerns—something about them is reminiscent of clueless men who claim they never have trouble being heard in meetings and are never concerned about walking alone at night.
Perhaps the most troubling part of the video, which supposedly protects associates from big bad third party influences by providing them with fair and balanced information, is the fact that much of the information is actively and directly false, clearly intended to make workers fear unions and push back against any attempts to organize. The video makes numerous references to closed shops, for example, despite the fact that most states—and most unions—operate on an open shop basis.
Those who don’t feel like joining the union, in other words, are perfectly welcome to not pay dues and not access benefits like affordable health insurance and other perks negotiated by the union. Of course, they’ll also be benefiting from the collective bargaining they didn’t pay for, enjoying higher wages and benefits provided by their employers. One thing they won’t be forced to do, however, is join the union itself.
Notably, a bizarre recent case in California involved a Los Angeles Unified School District teacher who insisted that she should be allowed to access union benefits, but without paying her dues, because she disapproved of the organisation’s political activities. In court filings, she directly acknowledged that the union provided workplace support and assistance—but said she still didn’t want to pay for it.
Additionally, the video implies that the labour movement is fading, suggesting that union membership is at an all-time low. In fact, that’s not the case; according to the Bureau of Labour Statistics, union membership is holding relatively stable, and in the case of public sector unions, it’s actually going up. Moreover, as the Fight for $15 and other aggressive labour movements in the US illustrate, workers are angry, and they’re fighting back. This is not a nation with a weak or outdated labour movement. This is a country with workers who are ferocious and ready to get organised, and many are specifically targeting low-wage employers like Walmart, seeing those workers as among the most vulnerable.
‘We’ve been made a target,’ the video whines, presenting Walmart as the victim of evil labour organising monsters with the audacity to demand better working conditions. Technically, the narrators are right: Walmart is a popular target for labour organising, and it’s because the multinational firm is so big. As with other large and prominent firms, Walmart represents a game-changing potential—as goes Walmart, so does the rest of the industry.
Were unions to successfully penetrate the company, it would force the hand of a national discussion that’s been a long time coming. An organised union fighting for better benefits for Walmart workers would have tremendous collective bargaining powers, and a successful push would force other retailers to measure up or risk losing employees to their competition. There’s a reason Walmart makes such a soft and appealing target, and it shouldn’t come as a surprise to see so many unions eying it.
Under those conditions, it’s probably not surprising that the company has a great deal invested in fighting unions at every possible level, including orientation videos for new associates that depict unions as the devil and Walmart as a benevolent, friendly employer. There’s something deeply patronizing about the video, which takes exquisite care to make sure workers are informed that the company thinks they’re vaguely stupid and incapable of thinking for themselves—don’t worry your pretty little head about unions, the video says, because you’ll be taken care of just fine.
It’s in keeping with the company’s rabid hatred of unions, but it doesn’t really fit with Walmart’s treatment of workers thus far, because they certainly don’t appear well cared for. Walmart is fighting a losing battle against organised labour and better working conditions, and it doesn’t want to find itself on the wrong side of history—it’s already been a trendsetter in the world of cleaning up its image by selling organic foods and adopting ‘environmental sustainability,’ but its handling of workers is a glaring oversight. It could join the better wages and working conditions trolley, as Facebook just did with a dramatic PR-friendly announcement that it would start requiring contractors to pay a minimum of $15 hourly, plus benefits, but instead, it seems willing to accept the high cost of low prices.
With worker training routinely including anti-union propaganda, it’s clear that Walmart is running scared. Who’s afraid of the big bad worker?