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The Global Context of Walmart's Illegal Union Busting Tactics

David Callahan

At this point, it's hardly news that Walmart is a pioneer of modern union-busting. And the revelation that Walmart has illegally disciplined 80 workers since June -- including firing 20 -- for their involvement in union activity is no surprise. 

Yet while the company's union busting has often gone under the radar, this time Walmart appears to have miscalculated, with its harsh tactics spurring protests yesterday in 15 cities and further galvanizing a growing national movement to better wages. Walmart isn't the only union-busting company out there, it should be said, and research has shown a significant rise in illegal anti-union tactics since the 1990s.

To the extent that today's pervasive union busting gets any attention, it's typically in the context of domestic affairs. However, there is an important global angle here that we need to be thinking about, too. 

Freedom of assocation and the right to collective bargaining are considered core international human rights. So core that every year the U.S. State Department evaluates how well every country in the world is upholding these rights, as well as other human rights. 

And, in many places, it's a pretty grim story. For example, the State Department wrote this about Russia for 2012:

Employers frequently engaged in reprisals for union activity, including threatening workers with assignment to night shifts, denying benefits, and blacklisting or terminating the workers. Although unions were occasionally successful in courts, in most cases the managers of companies engaged in antiunion activities were not penalized.

Sounds pretty much like the situation here. In fact, the State Department routinely criticizes numerous countries for violations of worker rights even as many of these same problems fester here. 

It's also worth noting that all the Free Trade Agreements we have signed in recent years make a big point about labor rights that we fought hard to get signatories like Peru, Columbia, Panama, and South Korea to accept. 

Hypocrisy never helps the cause of good policy. The United States could gain a lot from raising global labor standards, yet it's hard to be a leader in this effort when U.S. businesses -- including this nation's single largest private employer -- flout long-established international norms and our government doesn't stop them. 

What would be benefits of raising global labor standards and strengthening worker rights? Here are a couple:

  • Higher pay and overall labor costs for workers in developing countries means that it's harder for these workers to undercut American workers, making the U.S. labor force more competitive and reducing the incentives for outsourcing. 
  • Research has found a strong correlation between strong unions and rising living standards in developing countries, a connection we know well from U.S. history. By forcing employers to share profits, unions help grow middle classes. 
  • A large global middle class creates more export opportunities for the United States for things like higher-end electronic products, healthcare services, financial services, education, tourism, and so on.
  • Middle class countries also tend to be more democratic, and democracies are less war-like, which is good for global stability -- a big deal for the U.S. if we plan on continuing as the world's de facto cop. More shared prosperity, bigger middle classes, and more democracy should translate into lower security spending by the United States. 

In short, the U.S. has a lot at stake when it comes to enforcing the core human rights of freedom of assocation and the right to collective bargaining. 

And if we want to make progress on this battle abroad, we need to practice what we preach at home.