Teacher Unions Take Stand Against Wal-Mart

The two major teachers unions have become more openly critical of Wal-Mart and its labor practices. And one, the American Federation of Teachers, is urging its members to avoid Wal-Mart for their back-to-school purchases.

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Most teachers spend hundreds of dollars out of their own pockets for school supplies, and now some teachers unions are urging them not to spend that money at Wal-Mart. Last week, local unions held rallies urging a boycott because of Wal-Mart's labor practices. NPR's Frank Langfitt reports.

FRANK LANGFITT reporting:

Michael Bank(ph) works as a counselor for special needs elementary school students in Delaware. He spends his own money on extra supplies, everything from stickers to molding clay. In the past, he used to buy some things at Wal-Mart, but not anymore. Today, he's out with his toddler Benjamin, who's helping him pick out Post-Its at a Staples in Wilmington.

Mr. MICHAEL BANK (Delaware State Education Association): OK, Benjamin, you see any colors you like?

BENJAMIN: Yes.

Mr. BANK: What color should I get?

BENJAMIN: Yellow.

Mr. BANK: Yellow? OK, I can get yellow.

LANGFITT: Bank's union, the Delaware State Education Association, is urging its 11,000 members to stop shopping at Wal-Mart. Among other things, the union cites Wal-Mart's closing of a Canadian store this year after it became the only unionized Wal-Mart in North America.

Mr. BANK: What happened is I started reading in the newspaper about their anti-union stances, how they treat their employees. If I'm not happy with a store or their policies, generally I will not shop there.

LANGFITT: But when it comes to Wal-Mart, teaches unions are not in total agreement. The National Education Association, the nation's largest, does not support a boycott. One reason: In smaller towns, teachers may have no place to buy cheap supplies other than Wal-Mart. The American Federation of Teachers backs a boycott. Because of Wal-Mart's size, President Edward McElroy doubts it will put a dent in the company's sales.

Mr. EDWARD McELROY (President, American Federation of Teachers): But what it will do is educate people about precisely what happens when they go in and spend their dollar in Wal-Mart as opposed to spending it in an Aunt Bessy's Corner Store(ph) or in an employer who provides decent wages and health-care benefits to their employees.

LANGFITT: Mona Williams is vice president for communications at Wal-Mart. She says the boycott is really just designed to help other unions, like the United Food and Commercial Workers, who've tried to organize Wal-Mart employees for years without success. She also says Wal-Mart is trying to make back-to-school shopping affordable. She says one of this year's specials is a box of crayons for 25 cents.

Ms. MONA WILLIAMS (Vice President for Communications, Wal-Mart): The millions of American parents and teachers who rely on Wal-Mart's low prices know who's putting kids first and who's just playing politics.

LANGFITT: Wal-Mart gives millions of dollars to schools each year and supports parent-teacher associations. Some teachers really appreciate it. Tom Short works as an assistant special education teacher. He lives in Dover, Delaware. Short doesn't like Wal-Mart's policy toward unions, but he doesn't support the boycott either. Short works with mentally and emotionally challenged students during the summer. Wal-Mart has hired several of them to stock shelves and run cash registers.

Mr. TOM SHORT (Assistant Special Education Teacher): I've seen these children blossom and just come alive. And when they've gotten their paychecks and all, just to see their energy and the wonderful way that they just look at life know, the self-esteem. And it's all been basically because of the opportunity that Wal-Mart has afforded them.

LANGFITT: Short says that when teachers think about Wal-Mart, they need to look at the whole picture.

Mr. SHORT: I can't just look at the one side because they are doing good for my kids and the kids in our district, and that's what's most important to me.

LANGFITT: And even if Short did support a boycott, his wife, Monica, wouldn't. Sitting in their living room, Monica points to all the things she's bought at Wal-Mart from mini blinds and curtains to couch pillows and a TV. She says that without Wal-Mart, she couldn't afford all these things on the couple's tight budget. Frank Langfitt, NPR News.

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