(CNSNews.com) - The recent out-of-court settlement between Wal-Mart and one of its employees, following a dispute over working conditions, is a sign the country's top retailer will no longer be able to deny its pattern of abusing workers, according to the union seeking to represent Wal-Mart employees.
"For years, Wal-Mart has tried to keep workers from knowing what their rights really are," said Mike Leonard, executive vice president of the United Food and Commercial Workers Union (UFCWU). "Now, workers are finally getting the opportunity to find out what they can do at work."
The company last month agreed to pay Cherie Beck, who had been a cashier at an Orlando, Fla., store, $7,000 in back pay and interest to settle a case that originated when Beck was fired for complaining about her work schedule. Wal-Mart, however, did not admit any violation of law in agreeing to pay Beck.
Wal-Mart, which employs more than one million individuals in the United States, has been under attack for some time by the UFCWU for what the union views as a systemic disregard for the rights of workers.
"They will take any steps necessary to suppress the voice of workers, including violating the law," said UFCWU spokesman Greg Denier. "I would like them (Wal-Mart) to respect the law and the rights of workers and allow workers or their associates to make a free choice for a voice at work."
As part of the recent settlement with Beck, the company posted a notice outside the Orlando store to "let workers know that Wal-Mart will not threaten associates who engage in concerted activity...won't require associates to report their contacts with unions and won't discipline or fire workers who engage in concerted activity," Leonard said.
Wal-Mart spokeswoman Christi Gallagher explained that the Orlando case was headed for trial until the UFCWU approached Wal-Mart for the out-of-court settlement. The company accepted the resolution only because it contained an explicit statement that Wal-Mart had not admitted any violation of law, Gallagher said. The UFCWU agreed to the arrangement, she added.
The union also cited the case of a Wal-Mart employee in Georgia who earlier this year charged that the corporation had spied on workers and denied them the right to solicit collective bargaining on their own time. Wal-Mart, according to Leonard, has agreed to display a notice outside the Georgia store as well, outlining the federal laws protecting workers' right to organize.
But Gallagher emphasized that there wasn't even a hearing held in the Georgia case and that the decision to display a workers' rights notice was Wal-Mart's internal decision.
She also highlighted the company's strategy for addressing the problems and disputes involving workers.
"One of our core basic beliefs is respect for the individual, and we have a policy called the open door policy, which allows our associates to freely talk to members of management at any level up to and including Lee Scott, the CEO of our company," Gallagher said.
Gallagher added that the company management has no intention of getting in the way of employees forming a union, if that's what they want. However, she said Wal-Mart workers have in the past "chosen not to have the unions step into the middle of that partnership, and I think the associates value that relationship as well."
While Denier asserted that if given a free choice, an "overwhelming majority" of employees would choose union representation, Gallagher disagreed from her company's standpoint.
"I just don't feel like they see the value of paying their hard-earned money in the form of union fees or union dues to have a third party step in there and voice opinions that they're already able to voice everyday," she said of the Wal-Mart employees.
Wal-Mart, traditionally viewed as one of the nation's most conservative major corporations, angered cultural conservatives earlier this month when it announced it was expanding its anti-discrimination policy to include homosexuals.
See Earlier Story:
Wal-Mart Includes Homosexuals in Anti-Discrimination Policy (July 2, 2003)
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