Unions Looking to Make Retailers Pay

Jul 11, 2006
George Anderson

By George Anderson

The U.S. labor movement is tired of being on the losing end. Years of futility trying to organize non-union retailers along with wage and benefit concessions made to companies with unions helped bring about the recently formed alliance of labor organizations known as the “Change to Win” coalition.

According to a report in Chain Store Age, the coalition of seven labor unions with a combined membership of six million is ramping up organizing and public relations activities as part of its “Make Work Pay” campaign.

Julius Steiner, chairman of the labor relations and employment law department at Obermayer Rebmann Maxwell & Hippel, said, “Retailers that are non-union – the large ones – are going to find themselves the target of intense and well-organized union campaigns. There is no question that what has been seen on the surface as directed toward Wal-Mart is going to be felt by the other large chains as well.”

Mr. Steiner said Whole Foods is among the larger chains that can expect increased attention on the organizing front.

“The United Food and Commercial Workers [UFCW] is spending a lot of money and expending a lot of energy on infiltrating the work force of Whole Foods for the purpose of organizing from within,” he told Chain Store Age. “I can guarantee you that they [the UFCW] are training people – and these are paid, professional organizers – to apply for jobs at Whole Foods.”

Stephen Cabot, chairman of The Cabot Institute for Labor Relations, said companies have it within their power to fend off unions.

“When a union successfully organizes, it is usually because the employees have lost faith in the employer, or at least believe that the union is more credible than the boss,” he said. “But when the process of listening, caring and then responding reaches a satisfactory-plus level, employees begin to feel that they don’t need a labor union.”

The need for an increased focus on employees is clear, said Mr. Cabot.

“Companies are quick to hire consultants to work with them to become more efficient in operations,” he said, “but in terms of developing employer-employee communications strategies, training strategies, supervisory interaction strategies? It doesn’t happen.”

Moderator’s Comment: Do you expect the UFCW and others representing workers in the retailing field to be more successful in organizing companies without
a unionized workforce? If yes, will the retailing landscape be altered as a result?

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5 Comments on "Unions Looking to Make Retailers Pay"

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Len Lewis
Len Lewis
14 years 7 months ago

There is simply not the need for unions — as we know them — the way there was in the early part of the 20th century. I know a lot of non-union operators that simply pay more than the union could get for the employees with little difference in the benefits package.

the bottom line is that the rank and file don’t see clear benefits of joining up — only someone else trying to get more money out of their paychecks and wallets. I also heartily agree with Frank that the unions are woefully out of step with the rank and file when it comes to political donations. Most of it is money down the drain — on both sides of the aisle.

W. Frank Dell II
14 years 7 months ago

A labor lawyer once told me it costs a retailer 10 times the legal fees for a union company over a non-union one. Additionally, the total labor cost is lower for the non-union company. The big difference is work rules. The moral is, taking the time and having a real concern for employees pays off.

A number of factors have contributed to the decline of union membership. First, federal and state laws now provide much of the protection unions early on provided. Second, high salaries and expensive meetings do not relate well with the rank and file members. Third, the large political donations are many times out of step with the membership. I would expect some wins for the unions, but no wholesale change in the landscape.

Robert Baxendell
Robert Baxendell
14 years 7 months ago

Successful union organizing attempts are fueled only by unsuccessful retailers who probably do practice unfair labor rules anyway. Follow the law; practice sound management and leadership principles — and no attempt will be successful.

David Livingston
14 years 7 months ago

I don’t see the unions making much progress. What is the benefit to the retailer for having a union? I know in the grocery industry there is a high correlation of failure and being unionized. Unions are often a costly distraction for both the workers and the company. Just ask the Wal-Mart workers in Quebec what the union did for them. It’s all about [extracting] money from retailers and in the end, the workers really see no meaningful difference in wages. Short term wage increases are often offset by strikes and premature failures. Whole Foods looks like an easy target because they are very profitable and can more easily pass on the added costs of a union.

Mark Lilien
14 years 7 months ago
Union organizing, whether it’s called “Change To Win” or “Make Work Pay” will probably fail. Whether it’s done by the UFCW or Unite Here or another union, it will probably fail. That doesn’t mean employers should ignore union campaigns, since even a failed campaign can be disruptive and expensive. The safest industries for unions and their employers are those that are almost 100% organized. The union employers are not competitively disadvantaged when everyone is a union employer. The optimal strategy: unionized supermarket owners and their unions should team up to organize the nonunion employers. Since the late 1950’s union membership as a proportion of the American work force has been declining. Unions lost their organizing leadership several decades ago. If the unions don’t team up with their employers, the nonunion firms will continue to increase their market share until the union firms and union employees are gone. Look at the auto industry and the airlines. Both industries’ legacy union firms are declining while nonunion firms are increasingly dominant.

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