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New Rule Makes Hartford Hub Of Wal-Mart Debate
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 Simmons.

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 it.

Speaking of the ordinance, Green said, "This is something that can dramatically improve the playing field for organizing retail workers in general, but particularly at Wal-Mart."

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 brigade.

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 of it.

E-mail: haar@courant.com

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
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