JACKSONVILLE, Texas -- Wal-Mart Stores said last week it would use all legal means to challenge a vote by meatcutters at its Wal-Mart Supercenter here to join the United Food and Commercial Workers Union -- a vote that broke the company's longtime U.S. union barrier.
The workers voted 7 to 3 on Feb. 17 to join UFCW Local 540, becoming the first union within Wal-Mart's 2,886 Wal-Mart, Wal-Mart Supercenter and Sam's Club stores in the United States. The vote came one day after the five-member National Labor Relations Board, Washington, D.C., denied Wal-Mart's request to review a regional board's decision to certify the union.
But Wal-Mart, Bentonville, Ark., said it will continue to fight.
"We're keeping our strategy to ourselves, but you can be guaranteed we'll fight," Tom Williams, a spokesman for Wal-Mart, told SN. "We'll pursue this through legal channels and government agencies."
Should Wal-Mart choose to challenge the union, it currently has two options, said Martha Kinard, acting director of the NLRB's Region 16 office in Fort Worth, Texas, which heard the initial petition from Local 540. It can file an objection charging misconduct on the part of the NLRB, forcing the regional office to make a second review and recommendation to the national board; or it can refuse to bargain with the union. The latter constitutes intentionally committing an unfair labor practice that would send the case to circuit court.
Wal-Mart's principal objection to the union vote in Jacksonville was that the meat department comprised just 11 of the 365 employees of the store. "[W]e feel that all associates in the store deserved a chance to participate in the vote, and that the outcome would have been very different if everyone in the store had been given that opportunity," Wal-Mart said in a statement. "This vote is not in the best interests of our associates or the store."
The UFCW contended that meat-cutting requires different skills than other duties at the store, said Jill Cashen, spokeswoman for the Washington, D.C.-based union. UFCW-represented meatcutters at Dominick's stores in Chicago, for instance, have different contracts than other employees also represented by the union, she said.
Tangles between the UFCW and Wal-Mart have intensified in recent months. Most recently, Wal-Mart obtained a temporary restraining order barring anyone associated with the UFCW from trespassing and soliciting new members after UFCW members entered more than 220 Supercenters in an organizing drive.
Workers at a Wal-Mart in Jerseyville, Ill., successfully petitioned the NLRB for a vote on union membership, but the vote last year failed to meet the approval of the majority of Wal-Mart employees.
The Fort Worth NLRB office is scheduled to hold an initial hearing today on a petition by seafood and meat department workers at a Wal-Mart Supercenter in Palestine, Texas, also seeking representation from UFCW Local 540, Kinard said.
Analysts said Wal-Mart has remained union-free in the United States by treating its employees well, and said they feel the vast majority of the retailers' 815,000 U.S. associates would choose to remain free of union representation. Nonetheless, the recent events in Texas are worth keeping an eye on, they said.
"It is something to be concerned about, because it could bring about higher labor costs," Alan Mak, retail analyst for Argus Securities, New York, told SN. "But it's very early. The real issue is whether this is going to become a trend."
"Wal-Mart has always maintained a good work environment for its employees and that has kept them from seeking a union," said Dan Binder, retail analyst for Brown Brothers Harriman & Co., New York.
Like Wal-Mart, the UFCW is digging in for a long fight, Cashen said.
"Companies in other industries have a long history of delaying unions and dragging things out, and we expect Wal-Mart will do the same," she said. "But Local 540 is committed to its workers, and they're not going to walk away."