"We have human resources teams all over the country who are available to talk to associates, and we will get questions about joining a union," says David Tovar, a spokesman for the company. "We would say: 'Let us remind you of all that Walmart offers, and of what might go away. Quarterly bonuses might go away, vacation time might go away.'"You can take it as a given that if this is what a vice president of communications is admitting to publicly, it's the velvet glove on Walmart's anti-union efforts. The real meat of those efforts include firings and other very direct forms of intimidation. Those things are illegal; Walmart does them because most of the time it can get away with it, and even when it's caught, the penalties are laughably small.
But there are legal questions and dangers associated with even this "quarterly bonuses might go away" business. Labor law experts told The Nation's Josh Eidelson that it's all about context: Does that "you might lose your bonus and vacation" come across as a prediction or a threat? The first is legal, the second isn't—and the line between them is very much in the eye of the beholder, though if the words are delivered as part of a more comprehensive anti-union package, the line moves toward threat. Also, what else is Walmart's anti-union "human resource team" member saying in that conversation?
"To be safe," added [Cornell labor law professor Lance] Compa, "management normally has to couch the possible loss of benefits in a discussion about collective bargaining, saying that bargaining is a two way street, wages and benefits are negotiable, management has the right to bargain hard, you might lose some benefits, you might gain some benefits, maybe nothing will change except you’ll be paying dues, and so on."The question isn't just whether Walmart's corporate guidelines tell human resources staffers and local store managers to do all that, it's whether they do it every time. Every single time a Walmart manager delivers these lines so carefully calibrated to walk the edge of how strong a threat a company can legally make, does he or she stay just to the legal edge? And how does even the most mild version of these lines sound to a worker who's just seen an activist coworker fired for a trumped-up infraction? How does it sound when it's delivered in a captive audience meeting, where workers have been rounded up to hear a long anti-union lecture? This is the day-to-day meat of anti-union campaigning, and it's historically very effective at frightening workers away from standing up for themselves and fighting for something better than Walmart's poverty pay, wage theft, and discrimination. That some workers are increasingly willing to fight back is a sign of just how bad things have gotten.