Editorial: Against the Wal (Brattleboro Reformer)

They are consistent lawbreakers. They are virulently anti-union. They have undermined the rights of workers here in the United States as well as abroad. Their business model is based on cheap labor and exploitation.

And, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, this corporation has become one of the biggest donors to the Democratic Party.

The corporation is Wal-Mart and it is hedging its bets going into the November elections to stave off federal labor law reform that could make it easier for workers to join unions.

Money flows to power in politics. Twelve years ago, Wal-Mart gave 98 percent of its political action committee money to Republicans. In the current election cycle, the $2.2 million in PAC money split is 52 percent for the GOP, 48 percent for the Democrats.

That any member of the Democratic Party, the historic champions of the American worker, would take a dime from arguably the most anti-worker corporation in the nation speaks volumes about where the Democrats stand right now. Thankfully, no member of Vermont's congressional delegation has taken any Wal-Mart money.

Buying off politicians is all well and good, but it's not a substitute for good, old-fashioned intimidation. The Wall Street Journal reported last week that Wal-Mart has summoned thousands of its store managers and department supervisors to mandatory meetings to warn of increased union activity if the Democratic Party wins the White House and larger majorities in Congress.

While the managers and supervisors apparently weren't directly told how to vote, it was made very clear that a vote for Barack Obama was a vote for organized labors and the ruination of Wal-Mart.

The particular focus of Wal-Mart, and other anti-labor groups such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, is a bill called the Employee Free Choice Act. It would allow employees to form a union if more than 50 percent of workers simply sign a card saying they want to join.

Currently, companies can demand a secret ballot vote, and those votes are almost always preceded by mandatory anti-union indoctrination sessions and intimidation campaigns against union supporters. Technically, this behavior is illegal, but companies are rarely punished and if they are punished, the penalties are negligible.

With the "card check" system, workers can be approached anywhere — on the job or at home. Organizing can take place without having to notify employers, which gives unions a chance to form without having to face the strong-arm tactics that have driven down union membership in this country from about 15 percent of private sector workers in the early 1980s to only 7.5 percent today.

The Employee Free Choice Act was first introduced in 2005 and cleared the U.S. House, but was blocked by a Republican filibuster in the U.S. Senate and a veto threat by President Bush. With a possible Democratic triumph in November, the prospects for the bill's passage look much better.

That is why Wal-Mart, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and other business-backed organizations are spending tens of millions of dollars to lobby against the bill. For its part, the labor unions have also pledged to spend whatever it takes to make sure the bill is passed.

Unbelievably, big business says it's the underdog in this fight, because labor unions have pledged to spend $300 million on the election compared to $100 million by business groups. This is simply untrue. When it comes to national political campaigns, corporations outspend labor unions by an average margin of 15-to-1 and outspend civil society groups by an average of 30-to-1.

The decline in union membership in the United States has coincided with the decline in wages and benefits for the average American worker. As labor law has been weakened and employers get away with just a slap on the wrist for violations of the few laws that remain, the cards remain stacked against workers. That's why the heirs of Wal-Mart founder Sam Walton are billionaires while Wal-Mart's employees struggle to survive on the meager pay they receive. The last thing corporate America wants to see is a level playing field for workers. That is why it is lobbying so vigorously against the Employee Free Choice Act. Let's hope Congress doesn't lose its nerve and fail American workers yet again.