The Oberlin Review
<< Front page News October 14, 2005

Unionized Wal-Mart in Oberlin?

As concern over the effects of the future Oberlin Wal-Mart remains high, new ideas to minimize the negative affects of the superstores’ arrival are being explored. Unionizing workers at the Wal-Mart is one approach that has been suggested.

At last week’s community forum on the proposed Living Wage ordinance, Oberlin City Council President Daniel Gardner brought up the possibility of the unionization of workers at the future Wal-Mart as a response to the problem of low wages and benefits offered by the company.

Gardner, who was attending the event as an audience member, said that “during the question and answer section of the forum, I brought the subject up after hearing presentations from organizers from the AFL-CIO and UFCW unions in support of the Living Wage charter amendment. Neither of them had even mentioned labor-organizing as a strategy to deal with Wal-Mart’s tendency to depress wages in the areas in which they set up shop.”

Gardner added, “I found myself in the astounding position of trying to persuade union organizers to come to Oberlin to attempt to unionize Wal-Mart employees. They seemed to have no interest in even trying.”

The consensus among the labor representatives involved is that the unionization of Wal-Mart is an unrealistic goal and that other responses to Wal-Mart should be explored.

Mike Martino, a regional organizer for the United Food and Commercial Workers union, has had personal experience with the organization of Wal-Mart workers.

Martino said that the unionization of the Oberlin Wal-Mart, “sounds good, but is not realistic.” He explained, “The problem we’ve run into is that Wal-Mart has a massive anti-union labor team. They’ve done everything you can imagine to prevent unions. They scare the heck out of them.”

Local union activist and teacher of Oberlin College’s Labor History ExCo course Gil Kudrin pointed out the historical problems associated with small-scale labor organizing.

“Isolated efforts tend to lose,” said Kudrin. “It can’t be something as narrow as this. It has to be done on a national level.”

Mark Chesler, a member of Oberlin Citizens for Responsible Development, agrees that Gardner’s goal is unreasonable. He said the unionization of Wal-Mart is “farcical, it will never happen.” Chesler went on to compare the unionization of Wal-Mart to “turning on the landing lights for Amelia Earhart.”

OCRD believes that a more realistic solution than the one proposed by Gardner can be found in the Living Wage charter amendment proposal. Though the proposal exempts several categories of workers, it is intended to guarantee a fair wage for all workers in Oberlin.

Attorney Jerry Phillips, member of the OCRD council and author of the Living Wage proposal, asked of Gardner, “If he is so concerned with it, why is he so critical of the Living Wage, because a living wage is the point of unions?”

Chesler added, “Gardner is trying to straddle the line. He wants to have it both ways.”

Gardner, however, is not convinced that the Living Wage amendment will address the problem of Wal-Mart.

“It is not at all clear that the living wage would have any effect on Wal-Mart,” said Gardner. He added that many times, in order for a living wage to apply to businesses, they “must be a beneficiary of economic assistance or have a contract with the city. We’ve made no commitment to Wal-Mart.”

Despite general skepticism with his idea of unionizing Wal-Mart, Gardner believes that it would be the best solution to the problem of wage depression, and he continues to be hopeful.

“Four new Wal-Mart stores are coming to the area in the next two years,” said Gardner. “Lorain County might approach the issue with the existing store, and the ones slated to open.

“I’m sure it’s a very difficult proposition,” admitted Gardner. However, he expressed his disappointment with the defeatist attitudes of critics of the idea.

“On a personal note, it’s almost tragic to me not to give it the proverbial ‘college try.’ ”


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