A Teamsters local is trying to organize workers at the Sam's Club in Fullerton, marking the first attempt by a union in Southern California to take on a store owned by discount giant Wal-Mart.
The nation's largest retailer, a longtime opponent of organized labor, has successfully defeated all efforts to unionize its stores, which include about 430 discount food warehouses named after the late Sam Walton, the Arkansas businessman who founded Wal-Mart.
But Teamsters Local 952 in Orange, which has 12,000 members, says it has signatures of support from most of the 140 warehouse and clerical workers at the Fullerton Sam's, a former Pace Membership food store that Wal-Mart bought late last year.
Based on that, the local is asking the National Labor Relations Board to hold an election. A hearing on that request is set for later this month.
Labor observers say a victory would be significant against a company that, as it expands in the Southland, is a threat to the heavy union organization of the region's grocery industry.
"That would be a great inroad," said Michael Byrne, a spokesman at the AFL-CIO in Washington, which has long had a contentious relationship with Bentonville, Ark.-based Wal-Mart.
Hector Gonzales, general manager of the Sam's store, said in a brief statement, "We do not believe a majority of our associates want to be represented" by the union. He and other Wal-Mart representatives would not comment further.
Teamsters officials said management recently spurned their request for immediate recognition, which would have enabled the union to avoid a formal election.
Despite the many signatures from workers, the Teamsters are not assured of keeping employee support through the election, especially if Sam's launches an anti-union campaign, as is expected.
Some workers say they will continue to back the Teamsters, though, because of concerns about job security and cuts in pay and hours. "We're all just kind of worried," said Corey Costantino, a seven-year warehouse clerk.
Unions across Southern California, especially those trying to protect their turf in the highly organized supermarket industry, will be closely watching the Teamsters' effort. The growing presence of non-union warehouse clubs have cut into grocery sales at regular markets.
The United Food and Commercial Workers union has campaigned hard over the years to keep Wal-Mart, which has tiptoed around the edges of the state's heavily populated areas, from opening stores in Burbank, Simi Valley and other Southland sites.
But late last year, Wal-Mart bought 91 Pace stores from Kmart, including 21 in California, giving the retailer an entry into the lucrative Southern California market.
Rod Diamond, a spokesman at the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 777 in Los Angeles, which has contracts with big supermarket chains, said he isn't sure the Teamsters can succeed at organizing the Fullerton Sam's. If they do, he said, "it will definitely be a step in the right direction for the whole labor movement."