"Gimme a W! Gimme an A!" yelled a Stapleton Wal-Mart manager to then-associate Joe Walker. "Gimme an L!" Reaching the hyphen, he belted out, "Gimme a squiggly!" squatted down, shook his hips and expected Walker to do the same. Walker had just been initiated into the Wal-Mart cheer, a scene familiar to the chain's employees everywhere.
Started by founder Sam Walton, the cheer is one of the accepted Wal-Mart management techniques to build team camaraderie and inspire loyalty among employees. But the butt wagging and call-leading didn't have the desired effect on Walker, who instead tried to help unionize his store to get higher wages and better health care.
"I felt like I was being inducted into a cult," he says. "It was like I was in the fifth grade."
The United Food and Commercial Workers Union recently started a national organizing campaign targeting Wal-Mart, zeroing in on 100 stores in twenty states and launching the walmartyrs.com Web site. Because the store in the Stapleton redevelopment sells groceries -- posing a direct challenge to unionized grocery stores -- it is one of the union's targets. The UFCW represents 20,000 grocery employees in Colorado and Wyoming -- including those at most King Soopers and Safeway stores -- and many clerks make $14 to $15 an hour and have good health insurance and pensions. Like Walker, most of Wal-Mart's "associates," or clerks, make about $8 an hour and decline the company's health insurance because the premiums are so high.
"Wal-Mart is lowering the living standards for the entire community," says Joella Risbon, an organizer for the UFCW who has been working with employees at the Stapleton store. "As Wal-Mart goes into groceries, that sets a standard for wages. These other companies are saying, 'We can't remain competitive with them paying those wages.' That's the biggest question we hear from the companies we negotiate with: 'What about Wal-Mart?'"
Risbon's fight won't be an easy one. Wal-Mart is unabashedly anti-union, indoctrinating its employees as soon as they're hired with videotapes and the expected canned response to unionization ("I don't need third-party representation. I can speak for myself").
"You mention union and they go into their attack mode, attacking people and harassing them," says Walker, who experienced the full range of the company's retaliation when he was helping the store prepare for its grand opening last summer.
Walker and other employees who backed the union say they quickly found themselves targeted by their supervisors. "They followed me and another employee to a union meeting," Walker says. "They started keeping tabs on our off-work activity. They'd try to catch you alone and say, 'We heard you were talking to the union.' It's always two of them and one of you."
Walker says they were told they couldn't leave the building on their lunch breaks because managers said they were going to meet union organizers in the parking lot. All Stapleton-store employees were forced to watch the anti-union videos and attend meetings at which labor unions were criticized.
Fed up, Walker left two months ago and has filed several complaints against the company with the National Labor Relations Board.
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A spokeswoman for Wal-Mart accuses the UFCW of spreading lies about the company. (The Stapleton Wal-Mart manager declined to comment for this story.) "Despite years of trying, they've been unsuccessful at organizing our associates," says Cynthia Illick. "Now they're taking a new approach and trying to destroy our reputation."
According to Illick, Wal-Mart employees have made it clear that they don't want union representation. She says associates at Wal-Mart benefit from company profit-sharing plans and an "open-door" relationship with managers. "They can take concerns up the chain of command," says Illick. "Managers talk to associates all day long. The union wants to get between the associates and management so they can collect dues."
Walker still goes back to the store to talk to his former co-workers about the union.
"I go in there to talk to people and try to get them to stand up for their rights," he says. "All the security people watch every move I make. It's like, 'Red alert -- nobody talk to him.' I'm sure they talk to anybody they see me talking to. I've never worked for a company that does the things Wal-Mart does. It's just flat-out wrong."