Unions push on Wal-Mart

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A major union, the United Food and Commercial Workers, is beginning a new push to unionize workers at Wal-Mart (WMT). Congress has been working on new legislation that would make it much easier for labor to bargain and set up contracts. A numbers of companies, both large and small, are lobbying to keep the bill from making it to the president's desk.

Wal-Mart argues, with a fair amount of logic, that a unionized labor force would raise its costs and lower its ability to run its operations. Since its workers currently have almost no leverage with the company, those facts are almost certainly true. That bring the issues down to whether Wal-Mart's shareholders and customers are well-served by the company having a largely unionized work force. The answer is almost certainly "no."

According toThe Wall Street Journal, "the campaign at Wal-Mart, because it is the nation's largest private-sector employer with 1.4 million employees at more than 3,600 stores, could have the greatest impact on the legislative debate and other organizing efforts." Even without the legislation Wal-Mart cannot stop the union's activities, it can just make them much more difficult.

Wal-Mart is a unique case. Because so many of its customers are lower middle class or lower class in terms of income, any action that pushes up its prices may harm the company's ability to provide goods and services at rates affordable to people who have finances that are already stretched to the breaking point. While Wal-Mart has no special rights compared to other companies, the effects of unionization could have a relatively broad impact on consumer spending, especially at the bottom end of the economic scale of non-discretionary spending.

A union at Wal-Mart will hurt customers, but that does not mean labor will be blocked from getting its way.

Douglas A. McIntyre is an editor at 24/7 Wall St.

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