Is Wal-Mart crossing the legal line with anti-Democratic campaign?
Published: Friday August 1, 2008

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Executives at the nation's largest retailer, Wal-Mart, are all-but urging their employees to vote Republican this November, fearing that a Barack Obama presidency combined with Democratic gains in the Senate could spell doom for their anti-union business model.

The Wall Street Journal reports Friday that company executives are forcing store managers and department heads into mandatory meetings where they are warned that Democratic victories would make it easier for unions to organize in their stores. The retail giant has responded to previous attempts to unionize by eliminating departments or shutting down stores.

Wal-Mart opposes proposed legislation called the Employee Free Choice Act, which would make it easier for workers to unionize by signing a card rather than holding a vote.

The Journal spoke to a dozen employees in seven states who attended meetings with Wal-Mart human resources managers who delivered the company's anti-union line, warning that "unionized stores would have to pay hefty union dues while getting nothing in return, and may have to go on strike without compensation."

While the company insists it is not telling employees how to vote, some who attended scoff at the notion.

"The meeting leader said, 'I am not telling you how to vote, but if the Democrats win, this bill will pass and you won't have a vote on whether you want a union,'" a Wal-Mart customer-service supervisor from Missouri told the paper. "I am not a stupid person. They were telling me how to vote," she said.

Such actions put the company on a "fine legal line," according to the report.

Wal-Mart may be walking a fine legal line by holding meetings with its store department heads that link politics with a strong antiunion message. Federal election rules permit companies to advocate for specific political candidates to its executives, stockholders and salaried managers, but not to hourly employees. While store managers are on salary, department supervisors are hourly workers. However, employers have fairly broad leeway to disseminate information about candidates' voting records and positions on issues, according to Jan Baran, a Washington attorney and expert on election law.

The Journal report said Wal-Mart human-resources managers who run the meetings do not specifically tell attendees how to vote in November's presidential election, but they make it clear that voting for Democratic presidential hopeful Senator Barack Obama would be tantamount to inviting unions in.

"If anyone representing Wal-Mart gave the impression we were telling associates how to vote, they were wrong and acting without approval," Tovar said.

Wal-Mart, which does not have a unionized U.S. workforce, has been the target of union-backed groups that criticize the retailer for everything from its pay practices to its health care benefits.

The company is a key player in the so-called "Coalition for a Democratic Workplace," a pro-industry group mounting an agressive advertising campaign and lobbying effort against the Employee Free Choice Act.

With wire reports