THE BLOG
03/16/2008 01:19 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Wal-Mart's "Meat Wars" With Union Sizzles On

The "Meat Wars" between Wal-Mart and the United Food and Commercial Workers was on the front burner this week, as a court ruling gave both sides some fat to chew on.

In February, 2000, workers in the meat department of a Wal-Mart supercenter in Jacksonville, Texas, voted 7 to 3 to join Local 540 of the UFCW, becoming the first U.S. workers to vote in a union at Wal-Mart. "This victory could open the floodgates of pent up worker frustration at the abusive treatment, low pay, and lousy benefits at Wal-Mart," said then-UFCW President Doug Dority. Dority called the Jacksonville election "the vote heard round the world." The UFCW charged that Wal-Mart went to great lengths to try to cut the vote their way, including "stacking" the meat department with anti-union workers. Rather than stew over what the vote meant, Wal-Mart decided to do a little cutting of its own.

In a move that they said had "absolutely nothing" to do with retaliation against the union, Wal-Mart announced several weeks later that it was closing down its meat-cutting operations in 180 stores across six states, and switching to "prepackaged" meat. Wal-Mart claimed it would find jobs for the meat-cutters. The company explained its move to prepackaged meat was in the works for months, and would take effect by June, 2000. The UFCW petitioned the National Labor Relations Board for an injunction to prevent Wal-Mart from cutting the meat cutters. "Changing the way all of its store sells meat shows the extent to which Wal-Mart will go to keep the union out of its stores," the UFCW told reporters. "Any time management concocts a scheme to ratchet down people's livelihoods, it says a lot about the real nature of the company."

Three years went by, before an NLRB judge ordered Wal-Mart to restore the meat department, and the meat cutters, and to recognize and bargain with the union over the effects of any change caused by the switch to prepackaged meat. "The elimination of work requiring their special skills greatly affected both job satisfaction and future earning potential," Administrative Law Judge Keltner Locke wrote in his ruling. "The absence of future wage increases, coupled with the effects of inflation, constitute a very demonstrable and adverse effect," the judge concluded. (Wal-Mart must have been stung by this ruling, because Judge Locke was the same judge who ruled in the company's favor in two other cases, including a vote in Palestine, Texas, that defeated UFCW representation.) "This is a historic decision," the UFCW said of Locke's ruling, "the first bargaining order issued against Wal-Mart in the United States. It is a victory for all Wal-Mart workers who are fighting for a voice at work."

But Locke's decision only led to more slicing and dicing. Both parties in the case appealed. The UFCW was unhappy that the court's ruling said the meat cutter's bargaining unit was non-existent as of July, 2000, when Wal-Mart moved to prepacked meat. The union argued that there was a continuing "community of interest" that set the meat cutters apart from other workers at the store. The Judge did find that the former meat cutters had separate supervision, distinct required skills, higher pay, and were hired specifically for the meat department. Wal-Mart also appealed Locke's decision, displeased with the requirement that the retailer re-establish the meat-cutting division in the department. "Wal-Mart has consistently contended that the union should never have been certified in Jacksonville because the election result was improperly influenced by union misconduct and because the bargaining unit requested was improperly narrow," the company said in a press release. "This portion of the ruling will be appealed."

In the meantime, Wal-Mart informally settled with at least four of the fired meat cutters, giving them back pay.

On March 14, 2008 -- more than eight years after the "Meatcutter's 10" vote in Texas -- a 3 judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia upheld both of the NLRB's 2003 decisions. Judge Brett M. Kavanaugh said that the Jacksonville unit did not meet the test for a bargaining unit, because the workers do no specialized cutting. The NLRB's precedent is that when a store closes, the employer must to bargain over the effects of that closing, and the NLRB ruled that the Jacksonville department's conversion was like a closing because the bargaining unit was eliminated. The Appeals judges agreed with the NLRB that Wal-Mart had engaged in an unfair labor practice by failing to bargain with UFCW over the effects of the closure. So neither the UFCW nor Wal-Mart got the relief it wanted.

"I have always believed," Sam Walton wrote, "that we don't need unions at Wal-Mart." His company has gone on to demonstrate that preventing workers from having an organized voice is worth shutting down a department, worth shutting down an entire store, worth paying eight years of legal bills. Wal-Mart reportedly called the axing of the meat cutters "the ultimate union avoidance strategy."

Over the years, Wal-Mart workers who have taken the time to communicate outside their corporate world, have described a bureaucracy that thrives on fear and intimidation, in which workers who speak out are eliminated---much like fat is cut from meat. To help Americans "save money, live better," Wal-Mart has made the strategic decision that the company must save money on its employees---so that others may live better. The workers at Jacksonville were the sacrificial meat that had to be cut as an example for the rest of Wal-Mart's "associates" of what happens to union sympathizers.

The Texas meat cutters are a reminder that Wal-Mart's 1.6 million workers are, in fact, all part of one giant meat department.

Al Norman is the founder of Sprawl-Busters, and the author of "The Case Against Wal-Mart."