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An uneasy welcome for Wal-Mart in Woodstock

An uneasy welcome for Wal-Mart in Woodstock, N.B.

When the American giant comes to town, the true costs usually outweigh the benefits

Woodstock - The New Brunswick Union of Public and Private Employees (NBUPPE/NUPGE) says residents of the province's oldest town should look at the facts carefully before extending a welcome to a new Wal-Mart outlet for the community.

“While I’m sure many people are looking toward the opening of the store with enthusiasm, I think it’s fair to say that the business sectors in Woodstock and the surrounding communities view it with some concern," says Tom Mann, executive director of the union. "I know for sure that unionized workers do."

Woodstock Chamber of Commerce president Lynn Rose was quoted as saying in the local media that she did not want Wal-Mart in Woodstock. She has good reason to say that.

Wal-Mart's virulent anti-union policies prevent workers from winning family-supportive wages and benefits. In the United States, many Wal-Mart employees are paid so poorly they can't afford health insurance.

When Wal-Mart took over the Woolco chain in Canada, it cut nine existing stores out of the chain, allowing those jobs to die.

"Is it a coincidence that all of those stores had unionized employees?" Mann asks. "Would Wal-Mart refuse to come to Woodstock if potential employees said they were interested in belonging to a union? Past practice indicates the answer would be ‘definitely.'”



Poor treatment of workers

A Feb. 16, 2004, report to the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Education and the Workforce, entitled The Hidden Price We All Pay For Wal-Mart, contains this statement: “Wal-Mart has come to represent the lowest common denominator in the treatment of working people.”

Full-time workers, who comprise only about two-thirds of Wal-Mart's U.S. workforce, may be scheduled for as few as 34 hours weekly and while 66% of workers at large U.S. firms get health coverage on the job, fewer than half of Wal-Mart workers do.

When new employees start at Wal-Mart, they must first watch a video warning them against joining a union, according to the author of the report, Barbara Ehrenreich. She chronicled her experience at Wal-Mart in Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting by in America.

“As New Brunswickers, we simply do not accept that sort of labour practice. We enjoy the right to organize,” says Mann.

Rampant labour violations

On January 14, 2004, the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU), an organization representing 151 million workers in 233 affiliated unions around the world, issued a report on U.S. labor standards.

Wal-Mart’s rampant violations of workers’ rights figured prominently. In the last few years, well over 100 unfair labor practice charges have been lodged against Wal-Mart throughout the country, with 43 charges filed in 2002 alone. Since 1995, the U.S. government has been forced to issue at least 60 complaints against Wal-Mart at the National Labor Relations Board.

Wal-Mart’s labor law violations range from illegally firing workers who attempt to organize a union to unlawful surveillance, threats, and intimidation of employees who dare to speak out.

Here in Canada, Wal-Mart has fought strenuously against unionization drives, including the current drive by the United Food and Commercial Workers to organize outlets of the chain across Canada. Most recently, the Arkansas-based chain has announced that it will close an outlet in Jonquiere, Quebec, rather than deal with a legally-organized union.

The National Union of Public and General Employees (NUPGE) has thrown its full support behind the UFCW campaign.

Clearly, Wal-Mart does not want to bargain with its employees on equal terms. Nor, it would appear treat them on equal terms.

Overtime for nothing

One of the most offensive aspects of Wal-Mart's sordid history deals with off-the-clock’ labour, not paying its employees for overtime they work.

In 2001, Wal-Mart paid over $50 million in unpaid wages to 69,000 workers in Colorado. These wages were paid only after the workers filed a class action lawsuit. Wal-Mart had been working the employees off-the-clock.

The company also paid $500,000 to 120 workers in Gallup, New Mexico, to settle another lawsuit over unpaid work. There are other such examples from Texas in 2002, Oregon in 2002, Minnesota in 2003 and the list goes on. The bottom line is that you shouldn’t have to go to court to be paid for legitimate overtime work, whether you live in Oregon or Woodstock.

“Wal-Mart has capitalized on modern shoppers’ combined mobility and time constraints," Mann says.

"By opening huge 'big box' operations in industrial-zoned areas on the outskirts of urban areas, it holds down the cost of the stores, while increasing the value of the land by having it rezoned commercial," he notes.

"Shoppers travel from surrounding communities to the big box outlet, draining income from local, often long-established businesses. Demands on local infrastructure, for increased traffic to the Wal-Mart location, for example, create further problems. Eventually, municipal taxpayers pay the bill for the increased infrastructure costs."

Negative impact on wages and jobs

Big-box retailers and super centres such as Wal-Mart transform family-supporting, middle-class retail jobs into lower-paying jobs. When many area residents, who will be working at the Wal-Mart store have less to spend on goods and services, they can't support community merchants — and everyone's income and spending eventually drops.

In the top 100 cities where Wal-Mart's share of the grocery industry grew more than 20% between 1998 and 2002, the number of cashier jobs fell as much as 2.3%. An independent shopkeeper doesn’t stand a chance when Wal-Mart can sell butter, for example, at a price lower than the local grocer can get it from the supplier.

While Wal-Mart may be able to charge low prices because of its purchasing policies of buying offshore produced merchandise (made in Canada tags certainly won’t be in the majority), the community pays a price for the presence of such a giant.

Today, it is estimated 50-60% of its products come from overseas. In the past five years, Wal-Mart has doubled its imports from China. In countries such as China, Bangladesh and others, factories force employees to work overtime or work for weeks without a day off. Young children work alongside adults in these factories.

"Would people in Carleton County consider those acceptable conditions in which to work?" Mann asks. "I doubt it. One employee of a Chinese supplier described the difficulties of surviving on $75 per month to house and feed her family."

The true price

For residents of Woodstock and the surrounding communities, the price of having a Wal-Mart on Connell Road will be steep when all factors are taken into account.

"When we buy from local merchants, the money stays in the community and creates jobs for our neighbours. Local merchants also support local charities and local sports teams. There is considerable evidence that Wal-Mart is slack in that area," Mann says.

"When shoppers go to Wal-Mart, the money is being siphoned out of the community and into the pockets of some of the wealthiest people in the world, whose only interest is to make money at the expense of others. Wal-Mart may not be a great deal for Carleton County." NUPGE


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