New Rule Makes Hartford Hub Of Wal-Mart
January 5, 2005
A new weapon debuts this month in the Wal-Mart workers war, as the retailer
opens a large outlet on the former site of a condemned housing project in Hartford.
Even people bored with the old debate over Wal-Mart - is it good or bad for the
economy? - will want to keep an eye on this one.
For the first time in Connecticut, among the first times in the nation, a local
ordinance gives union organizers - and any other groups - the right to do their
thing on Wal-Mart property, peacefully and within reason, without fear of the
boot or handcuffs.
They can rouse rabble right up to the front door of the 155,000-square-foot store.
This is a big deal at Wal-Mart, which has so far remained 100 percent non-union
in its North American stores in part by keeping labor organizers as far as possible
from its "associates."
Worker organizers and Wal-Mart opponents say they won't wait long to exercise
their new rights after the Jan. 26 opening at Charter Oak Marketplace. They are
the ones, after all, who helped the city council draft the ordinance, which passed
Dec. 13 in a 6-2 vote.
This Wal-Mart differs from others because it sits on Hartford Housing Authority
land. That's what allows the city council to exert some muscle, although the
shopping center developer that holds a long-term lease indicated it considers
the rule improper.
"The fight to ensure that living wages and benefits are paid to workers is a
battle we plan to engage," said Jon Green, director of Connecticut Working Families,
a political party as well as a coalition of labor and community groups.
Among the organizers' ideas: a bake sale, right on the site, to raise money for
Wal-Mart workers to buy health coverage.
It's a complex issue but a worthy and necessary fight. Neighborhood workers throng
to Wal-Mart for a shot at a job. One job fair alone, in October, yielded an astounding
1,500 applications for fewer than 400 positions, said the store manager, Eddie
And still they pour in, more than a dozen in an hour or so on Tuesday alone.
Many are former residents of the old Charter Oak public housing project, such
as store greeter Bob Healey.
But that doesn't mean the jobs are good ones. Even workers with five years experience
in retail would typically earn less than what the City of Hartford considers
a living wage, which is $9.98 an hour with health coverage, $13.95 an hour without
Speaking of the ordinance, Green said, "This is something that can dramatically
improve the playing field for organizing retail workers in general, but particularly
In fact, it's more than that, and less.
More, because there is drama in the fact that many of these workers grew up on
this same plot of land. The World War II-era tract rotted so badly that, by 1982,
teenagers took matters in their own hands and organized a nightly rat-wrangling
Healey, a 67-year-old former machine shop supervisor whose longtime employer
disappeared in 1998, was in the first wave of residents in 1940. He points to
the spot in the parking lot where his mother and two older siblings moved into
Section A in 1940.
Healey stayed until 1969, when he had a good job, a wife and four children, and
bought a house in West Hartford.
"At that time it was getting pretty bad," Healey said. "It had to go. But it's
sill sad. You're brought up in a place, made good friends."
Later generations didn't fare as well at Charter Oak, and the battle is for them.
The ordinance is, however, far less than a clear ticket to unionization. The
hurdles to collective bargaining are massive and many, from gathering signatures
among a transient workforce to winning a vote against company pressure, to beating
back legal challenges that have no financial limits, period.
Simmons, the store manager, vows he won't be the first manager of a unionized
Wal-Mart in America. Echoing the company line, he said, "I created about 400
jobs for this area. ...We're pro-associate. We feel if an associate has a problem,
they can talk to us directly."
Probably there won't be a union here. But the access ordinance gives a little
more protection, a little more check-and-balance to a system not known for much