Fight Wal-Mart and You’re Fighting for Civil Rights

The historian Nelson Lichtenstein begins his book State of the Union by looking at an employment application from Burger King. He takes special note of language on it that suggests that the restaurant will not discriminate against people on the basis of race, gender…you know the drill. In fact, Lichtenstein writes:
The overwhelming majority of workers, employers, and politicians believe that the government has a right to insist that active discrimination not take place against anyone covered by Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights or those many statutes that followed in its train. This seems so commonplace and commonsensensible, that we forget the radical character of this law. If you own a restaurant or a factory or a motel or run a college, you can’t make use of the property as you wish. The state mandates you to hire, fire, promote, and otherwise deal with your employees or clients according to a set of rules laid down in Washington and refined by the EEOC [Equal Employment Opportunity Commission] and the courts.
Think about it. Organize a union at your place of employment and they’ll fire you instantly and get away with it, but they can’t make your life miserable just because you’re African American. Except at Wal-Mart. They get to have their cake and eat it too. Lawyer George Lenard summarizes the case of Canady v. Wal-Mart Stores Inc.:
African-American plaintiff claiming racially discriminatory termination and racially hostile work environment alleged his immediate supervisor made the following discriminatory remarks: • Referred to himself as a “slave driver” when describing his reputation as a manager. • Asked plaintiff, “What’s up, my nigga?” • Referred to plaintiff as “lawn jockey.” • Said all African Americans look alike. • Said plaintiff’s skin color seemed to wipe off onto towels.
And Wal-Mart won the case on a summary judgment. When I first wrote about this case, I asked, “Does Wal-Mart think it’s OK to call African Americans lawn jockeys?” Let me simplify it further. Forget about the law. You want to know why this case is important? Wal-Mart sided with the supervisor instead of Myron Canady. That means they’re part of the problem rather than the solution. Does this mean Wal-Mart is a racist company? Does the fact that Wal-Mart is the defendant in the biggest class action gender discrimination suit in American history (indeed the biggest class action suit of ANY kind in American history) mean that the company is sexist? I don’t think so. These cases aren’t about racism or sexism per se; they’re about power. Wal-Mart sided with the supervisor because if they support workers over managers on anything their whole tyrannical employment system might topple over. If employees realize that they have a right to be treated with basic human dignity, they could actually demand the right to organize and Wal-Mart can’t possibly have that. They’ll tell you a union would add to the price of their cheap plastic crap and fatty meat, but we all know that’s just a cover story. The real reason Wal-Mart doesn’t want a union is that the Walton family would then be a little less obscenely rich. If some idiot manager wants to use his power over his employees to say, “What’s up, my nigga?” or hold business meetings at a Hooters restaurant, then that’s a small price to pay from the company’s perspective. This is precisely why Wal-Mart’s recent embrace of diversity is so inadequate. The presence of women and minority executives in the company’s boardrooms are worth very little if Wal-Mart’s money-grubbing culture stays the same. As James Baldwin explained more eloquently than I’ve ever seen it before:
[T]he inequalities suffered by the many are no way justified by the rise of the few. A few have always risen – in every country, every era, and in the teeth of regimes which can by no stretch of the imagination be thought of as free. Not all of these people, it is worth remembering, left the world better than they found it.
Indeed, let’s not forget that it was a female executive, Susan Chambers, who wrote the now-infamous memo that advised Wal-Mart to discourage unhealthy people from working there. That makes her part of the problem, irrespective of her gender. Diversity doesn’t cost Wal-Mart a cent. Empowering employees would be a whole different ballgame and Wal-Mart won’t do that on its own. That’s why Wal-Mart workers need a union. Otherwise, all our civil rights will be in jeopardy when Wal-Mart’s priorities and practices spread through the rest of the economy and the words enshrined on Lichtenstein’s Burger King application become just as meaningless as the right to organize.

3 Responses to “Fight Wal-Mart and You’re Fighting for Civil Rights”

  1. Interesting. Appreciate the link.

    From my management lawyer perspective I won’t agree about the benefits of a union, because I think unions also exploit workers and abuse power, and are likely to aggravate poor employee relations.

    Some companies certainly ask for union organizing because they don’t get it about treating people right and communicating well with them, in the interest of long term productivity, employee retention, and thus business success.

    Is Wal-Mart one of those? I can’t and won’t judge, lacking objective information. Most of what I see is biased, union-supported reporting and negative publicity. Perhaps this blog will be a better source of information for me.

    I agree with you about the Canady case on the point that automatically closing ranks around a supervisor is a common management mistake. My recommendation is that discipline and discharge decisions only be made after investigation by someone not involved in the events in question — and someone with legal knowledge (not necessarily a lawyer).

  2. George Lenard said”
    “I think unions also exploit workers and abuse power”.

    This is one of those loaded statements that implies more than it proves. For example “also” can mean that businesses and unions both exploit workers, or it could mean that some unions exploit workers.

    There is no evidence given, however, as to how this exploitation might be taking place. Standard union-busting law firms harp on the cost of union dues to workers.

    We don’t see examples of workers going out to the streets to protest the policies of their unions and in support of the company, however. The real truth is that for a fair agreement to be reached between two parties, both must have equal strength. This is certainly not true in the case of unorganized workers and their employers. It all boils down to the old saw:
    “might makes right.”

    Here is an essay I wrote showing the relationship between unionization and the standard of living of the working class.

    Does Unionization Matter?

  3. Jonathan Rees says:

    George:

    Thanks for following through my link. I do hope you keep reading this blog, but you should know I’m biased. I like unions, and I trust them to use their power much more fairly than a company like Wal-Mart. Why? Because if they abuse it, members can vote out their leaders.

    Does the fact that I’m biased necessarily make me wrong or make the union-supported info I’m getting wrong? Pipe up any time here and we’ll talk aboout it.

    Regards,

    Jonathan

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