In recent weeks, thousands of Wal-Mart store managers and department heads have been summoned to mandatory meetings at which the retailer stresses the downside for workers if stores were to be unionized.
What's at stake is the Employee Free Choice Act, which allows workers to opt for union representation via check-off card (in much the same way anyone can join the Republican Party by checking a box on a card, as supporters like to note) rather than by secret ballot (which employers know are much easier to influence by intimidation).
The EFCA has been introduced in every Congress for the last several sessions, but Republicans have either successfully bottled it up (when in power) or filibustered it (when not). It will be reintroduced in the next Congress, and the only question--a question that gives Wal-Mart and the US Chamber of Commerce flopsweats--may be whether Democrats will have enough votes in the Senate to stop a Republican filibuster this time.
A second Democratic vote from Oregon in the Senate would be helpful on that score.
Of course, if the EFCA becomes law, that doesn't solve the problem of worker rights in the US; it just moves the contest to the next level. After all, here's how Wal-Mart handled it when a store was on the verge of unionizing in 2005:
Wal-Mart Stores Inc. says it will close one of its Canadian stores, just as some 200 workers at the location are near winning the first-ever union contract from the world's largest retailer.
Wal-Mart said it was shuttering the store in Jonquiere, Quebec, in response to unreasonable demands from union negotiators that would make it impossible for the store to sustain itself.
"We were hoping it wouldn't come to this," Andrew Pelletier, a spokesman for Wal-Mart Canada, said Wednesday. "Despite nine days of meetings over three months, we've been unable to reach an agreement with the union that in our view will allow the store to operate efficiently and profitably."
In the middle of the second Bush recession of the decade, the barely implicit threat of a store-closing is a pretty powerful tool for discouraging union votes. The EFCA is designed to combat that. And we can hope that the Justice Department in the Obama administration would be another powerful force against such corporate lawlessness.
Meanwhile, Wal-Mart and its allies will work to make the laughable, counterfactual argument that it's Democrats in Congress that workers should be afraid of, not employers like Wal-Mart.
(And Carla surveys the Oregon angle. When they're willing to spend that much money to defeat a bill, you know that "efficiency" has a lot less to do with it than "profitability.")