Michigan Unions Square Off Against Wal-Mart

DETROIT - Organized labor in Michigan has begun a coordinated major campaign against Wal-Mart, which plans rapid growth in the state, The Detroit News reports.

The Teamsters, United Food and Commercial Workers, Service Employees International, and Hotel and Restaurant Employees International have combined forces against the world's largest retailer.

According to Robert Potter, president of UFCW Local 951 in Grand Rapids, rather than just attempting to organize workers, the unions plan is to launch a publicity campaign to raise growing concerns about Wal-Mart's labor practices and effect on communities. Unions have previously organized workers at Meijer, Farmer Jack, and Kroger stores.

"Wal-Mart is so big that we talk and plan about it every day," said Joe Hansen, president of the United Food and Commercial Workers Union, while visiting Detroit earlier in the week. "Organizing the auto industry was difficult, but you don't give up. A Wal-Mart economy is about lower paychecks and no benefits, and America can't succeed on that type of philosophy."

Wal-Mart spokeswoman Mona Williams rejected the assumption that the company is against organized labor. "We have nothing against the unions," she said. "A lot of our customers are in unions. A lot of our associates are former union members. We just feel that a union would not add anything at all for our associates."

The unions' strategy has been unveiled as Wal-Mart targets Michigan for aggressive expansion Michigan. The retailer already runs 68 stores in the state, but intends to build supercenters in Houghton Lake, Traverse City and Charlevoix Township. Most retail analysts believe Wal-Mart will open between 12 and 20 new supercenters in the state.

In response to the unions' contention that Wal-Mart offers low wages and inadequate benefits, Williams said that Wal-Mart's full-time hourly workers averaged $9.64 an hour, or $18,046 a year. She added that the company's starting salaries are on average higher than those of unionized stores. Wal-Mart also contributes to 401(k) plans and offers profit sharing, store discounts, performance-based bonuses and company paid life insurance, she noted.

The unions further maintain that the company crushes competing small businesses wherever it opens stores. "Wal-Mart spends millions on advertisements that say they promote and celebrate the community, when, in fact, they are doing just the opposite," according to Andrew Stern, president of the Service Employees International Union.

Another union claim is that Wal-Mart urges its workers to apply to subsidized programs like Medicaid and Women, Infants and Children (WIC), which are paid for by taxpayers. Additionally, the unions say that Wal-Mart's health care coverage is so costly that 75 percent of employees can't afford it.

According to Williams said the company doesn't encourage employees to use subsidized programs. Workers are responsible for one-third of their coverage, about $30.50 per month for an individual or about $122.50 a month for a family, she said.
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