There’s a story about Sam Walton, founder of Wal-Mart, only wearing clothes that he bought at his own store and driving around in an old pick-up truck, in effect living out the cost-cutting philosophy of his all-conquering business.

True or not, it’s emblematic of Wal-Mart’s commitment to frugality, which for a long time has benefited consumers, but has also affected the company’s 1.7 million employees. Figures compiled by Wake Up Wal-Mart show that in 2001 “sales associates, the most common job in Wal-Mart, earned on average $8.23 an hour for annual wages of $13,861. The 2001 poverty line for a family of three was $14,630.”

So why don’t they unionise, you might ask, and take up the fight with the company as a group? Power in numbers and all that. Well, one thing you won’t find Wal-Mart’s “sales associates” doing is forming a union. Wal-Mart’s antipathy for unions reached a very public peak last year when it closed down a store in Jonquiere, Quebec after staff attempted to establish a union because “there was injustice at the company and it did not respect its workforce”.

The union didn’t last long, with Wal-Mart preferring to close down the store rather than have it unionised. If Wal-Mart’s interest in acquiring Coles becomes a reality, can this be seen as a cautionary tale for workers at Australia’s largest private sector employer? And has the WorkChoices legislation made Coles look a lot juicier to Wal-Mart than it has in the past?

For their part, Wal-Mart doesn’t see the need for unions because staff and managers have such a wonderful working relationship. “There has never been a precedent in Wal-Mart history for a union to be necessary. Other organisations feel that a Wal-Mart Anti Union stance is born from greed or negligence to our employees’ needs. In actuality, there has never been a need for unions at Wal-Mart due to the close, personal relationship between Wal-Mart associates and their managers,” one Wal-Mart website says.