In its first study of how an American company treats its workers, Human Rights Watch asserted Monday that Wal-Mart’s aggressive efforts to keep out labor unions often violated federal law and infringed on its workers’ rights.
Human Rights Watch, which typically focuses on rights violations in Burundi, North Korea or other foreign countries, said that when Wal-Mart stores faced unionization drives, the company often broke the law by, for example, eavesdropping on workers, training surveillance cameras on them and firing those who favored unions.
“While many American companies use weak U.S. laws to stop workers from organizing, the retail giant stands out for the sheer magnitude and aggressiveness of its anti-union apparatus,” the human rights group wrote.
Wal-Mart Stores has more than 1.3 million workers at its nearly 4,000 stores in the United States, and none of its workers belong to a union.
Wal-Mart, in response, vigorously defended its labor practices. David Tovar, a Wal-Mart spokesman, said Wal-Mart provided an environment for open communications and gave its employees “every opportunity to express their ideas, comments and concerns.”
“It is because of our efforts to foster such an environment that our associates have repeatedly rejected unionization attempts,” he said.
Tovar said the report used unsubstantiated accusations from as long as seven years ago.
Two of the five organizing drives that the 219-page report examined took place in 2005, while the other three campaigns took place more than five years ago.
“Contrary to the allegations in this report, Wal-Mart respects our associates’ right to a free and fair unionization vote,” Tovar said. “We remain committed to compliance with U.S. laws regarding workers’ right to unionize.”
Carol Pier, a senior researcher at Human Rights Watch and author of the Wal-Mart report, said her organization decided to look specifically at Wal-Mart because of concerns about violations of labor laws.
“When the largest private employer in the United States seems to be able to violate U.S. labor law with virtual impunity, that’s a very serious cause for concern, both with respect to its impact on its employees, but also on the conduct by other employers in the United States,” Pier said in a telephone interview.
Wal-Mart called the study “pro-union.” Pier said only $50 of her organization’s $33 million budget came from labor unions.
Over the last few years, the main union for retail workers, the United Food and Commercial Workers, has suspended efforts to organize any Wal-Mart stores in the United States, largely because Wal-Mart’s counteroffensive makes that so difficult, union officials said. Moreover, union officials said they could put more pressure on Wal-Mart by mounting a sophisticated publicity campaign to embarrass it over its wages, benefits and overall treatment of its employees.
For the most part, the unionization drives described in the report, at Wal-Marts in Kingman, Ariz.; Aiken, S.C.; New Castle, Pa.; and Loveland and Greeley, Colo., grew out of discontent over wages and health benefits.