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Why It’s Impossible To Unionize Walmart

Walmart is the largest private employer in the United States. Why are none of its employees in a union?

October 5, 2012

Walmart is the largest private employer in the United States. Why are none of its employees in a union?

Since 1979, incomes in the United States have grown steadily more unequal. Some people think that’s inherent to capitalism, but for nearly half a century prior to 1979 precisely the opposite occurred. Incomes grew more equal — or income distribution remained constant.

By the 1950s, economists came to believe that growing income equality (which they also observed in Western Europe) was characteristic of industrial democracies as they matured past the initial inegalitarian disruptions attendant on shifting from an agricultural economy to an industrial one. Growing income equality was seen as a mark of what it meant to be a civilized nation.

If so, the United States and much of Western Europe abruptly became less civilized during the last two decades of the 20th century — and are even more uncivilized today. The pace and level of what the Nobel prizewinning economist Paul Krugman called “the Great Divergence” was especially severe in the United States.

Why did it happen? One major reason was the decline of labor unions. In 1954, roughly 40% of the nongovernmental private sector workforce was covered by union contracts. Today, that’s fallen to about 7%, the level it stood at when Franklin Roosevelt entered the White House in 1933. It’s as if the New Deal had never happened.

There are multiple reasons why what is still (almost mockingly) called Big Labor has declined more precipitously in the United States than elsewhere. Government policies hostile to labor organizing — many of them traceable all the way back to the anti-union Taft-Hartley law, passed over Harry Truman’s veto in 1947 — surely played a substantial role.

Liberals and conservatives may perhaps debate the causes, but nobody disputes the effects. Within the private sector, labor unions are a basket case.

Nowhere is this more evident than at Walmart, the largest private employer in the United States Not one of Walmart’s 1.4 million employees belongs to a union.

Only once has anybody successfully unionized a Walmart store lying within U.S. borders. That occurred in the winter of 2000, when ten meat cutters at a Walmart Supercenter in Jacksonville, Texas, voted 7-3 to affiliate with Local 540 of the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union (UFCW).

Within days of the vote, Walmart announced that it was phasing out meat-cutting at all its Supercenters, starting with 180 stores that just happened to include the one in Jacksonville.

The Supercenters would instead sell meat that was pre-wrapped, pre-cut, and pre-labeled. No meat cutters, no meat cutters union.

“This decision was in no way related to the Jacksonville situation,” a Walmart spokeswoman explained, presumably with a straight face.

Four years later, Josh Noble, a young employee in the tire and lube department of a Walmart in Loveland, Colorado, decided to give it another try.

“We got fed up,” he told Human Rights Watch. Workers in the tire and lube shop were “not getting lunches or breaks on time” and were being “asked to do jobs that are not part of our job description,” he said.

And, of course, the pay was lousy. Alicia Sylvia, a single mother of 10 year-old twins who worked with Noble, told the New York Times she earned $9 an hour (the average for other large general merchandisers was more like $12) and couldn’t afford the company’s health insurance (which enrolled fewer than half its employees).

Noble contacted the UFCW and invited co-workers to an organizing meeting at a local restaurant. Six people showed up, including Sylvia, and turned in signed union cards calling for a vote on affiliation.

The meeting was held on a Sunday evening in November. The very next day, three members of Walmart’s “labor relations team” arrived from the company’s headquarters in Bentonville, Arkansas, and called a store-wide meeting (even though Noble was trying only to organize the tire and lube department).

Company videos and PowerPoint presentations were shown. As Noble later recalled, one message was that “wages could be cut drastically” in collective bargaining.

“People were giving me dirty looks,” Sylvia remembered. “I’m the only [union supporter] there, and they’re all staring at me like I’m the demon person from hell.”

The labor relations team continued to hold similar meetings until the union vote took place in February. Meanwhile Noble, Sylvia, and the other pro-union employees weren’t permitted to discuss the union at all while they were on company property.

Noble noticed that store managers were spending more time, in greater numbers, at the tire and lube department, presumably to keep a close watch on the employees there.

“They were constantly on your back to try to catch you doing something wrong,” Sylvia told Human Rights Watch. “They make you nervous so you mess up.” At one point, Sylvia was disciplined for swearing — not exactly a noteworthy occurrence in any auto parts shop.

A co-worker who was against the union (and wouldn’t permit Human Rights Watch to identify him by name) said the flying wedge from Bentonville let him know they were aware he had applied to the company’s management training program.

“I felt I’d be taken care of,” he said, “because, without being asked, I’d give them information” about the labor organizers committing petty company infractions like speaking on a cell phone during working hours. “They had everybody going about it with one another, not just me.”

Six new employees were brought into the tire and lube department. A Walmart spokesman told the New York Times it was to replace three workers who had left — one of them (a union supporter) fired, according to Noble — and to improve the department’s efficiency.

But of course it was a tactic to alter the odds in management’s favor. (Another favored tactic is to let workers know that all raises must be put on hold for the duration of the union campaign. That never fails to infuriate rank and file, who are told it’s necessitated by the union drive: Any raise given during this period could be construed as a bribe.)

Sylvia started to get cold feet. “She’s just kind of a hard-to-read-type person,” Noble can be heard saying in “Walmart: The High Cost of Low Price,” a 2005 documentary that includes footage from the Loveland organizing campaign. “She’s definitely into it. She’s real strong.”

We next see Sylvia telling the filmmakers, “I … don’t really want to vote, but then I kinda have to.” Then we see Noble on the phone with Sylvia: “You’re getting freaked out because of what they’re saying. They’re not gonna know how you voted.”

At one point in the union campaign Noble thought he was pretty close to the majority he needed. But when the election was finally held, on February 25, 2005, his was the only vote in favor.

Seventeen voted against unionizing and two didn’t vote. Alicia Sylvia was one of the abstainers. “It was my day off,” she told Human Rights Watch:

I went in, and Dave [from the UFCW] calls me to make sure I was going in to vote. Josh [who is epileptic] was in the hospital with a seizure, so he couldn’t vote. Demetre had moved. Cody had gone to school. Justine had moved. Brooks had been given a temporary manager position. Rob got scared.

I knew that me and Josh were the only ones. Ryan had changed his mind, too…. I walked around the store for an hour. I was so scared. “Should I do it?” I walked around the store.

I chickened out. I felt so bad. They wheeled Josh in, and he voted for the union. I felt like I let him down. I was scared of being the only one, so I didn’t vote…. But if they’re all there and they see you go in, they know you voted. I thought they’d fire me.

Most (possibly all) of the bullying tactics described here were legal. For the UFCW to prove any of them illegal would probably have taken years of litigation, with only the remotest likelihood of a satisfying outcome. The union didn’t file suit.

That’s what labor organizing has come to three decades into the Great Divergence.

Editor’s note: This article is adapted from The Great Divergence: America’s Growing Inequality Crisis And What We Can Do About It (Bloomsbury) by Timothy Noah. Published by arrangement with the author. Copyright © 2012 by Timothy Noah.


Economists came to believe that growing income equality was characteristic of industrial democracies as they matured.

Today, about 7% of private sector workers are covered by union contracts. It's as if the New Deal never happened.

Liberals and conservatives may perhaps debate the causes, but nobody disputes the effects: Labor unions are a basket case.

Walmart is the largest private employer in the United States. Not one of its 1.4 million employees belongs to a union.