Nick Ut, AP Photo
Angelita Rodriguez protests outside a Walmart store in Paramount, Calif., Friday Nov.23, 2012. Wal-Mart employees and union supporters are taking part in today's nationwide demonstration for better pay and benefits A union-backed group called OUR Walmart, which includes former and current workers, staged the demonstrations and walkouts at hundreds of stores on Black Friday, the day when retailers traditionally turn a profit for the year.
On Thanksgiving and Black Friday, union organizers, activists groups and even a couple of Walmart employees are expected to picket the nation’s largest retailer in Salt Lake City and across the country. The unions and activists behind the pickets claim it will be the single largest demonstration against the big box retailers in history, and will signify a new era of workers standing up against the evil empire that is corporate America.
At least, that’s what labor unions want you to believe.
The reality is that these “strikes” are not the culmination of an organic movement of disgruntled and beleaguered employees. Instead, they are nothing more than Potemkin village protests — comprised of few or no actual Walmart employees — that are organized by the country’s labor leaders to smear the nation’s biggest retailer.
But you won’t see those national labor unions on the front lines, at least at first. Instead you’ll see an organization called OUR Walmart, which represents the unions’ latest strategy in combating their storied foe: “worker center” front groups.
Worker centers look like unions, spend like unions and protest like unions. But since they don’t technically negotiate with company management on workers’ behalf, worker centers technically don’t have to register as unions under federal labor laws. They are typically registered as nonprofit organizations — the same designation as churches, charities and schools.
This allows them to avoid many of the reporting requirements of labor unions, as well as the necessity of holding democratic leadership elections.
Depending on which union leader you talk to, OUR Walmart is either a subsidiary of the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union, or a recently spun-off independent organization that’s merely funded by the union. We know UFCW has devoted substantial resources to this week’s events by printing and distributing protest materials including posters, handbills, etc., and is even providing social media operational support through paid consultants.
But the union sleight-of-hand runs much deeper. By avoiding federal labor laws, such as the National Labor Relations Act, worker centers are permitted to engage in perpetual warfare against their targets. Unions, on the other hand, are limited to picketing for representation for just 30 days.
The loophole in labor laws that OUR Walmart and other worker centers are exploiting is central to their existence. Without it, they would be forced to fish or cut bait: After 30 days, they’d either have to call for an election — an election they’re guaranteed to lose — or call off their protests.
But as recent history shows, these and other worker centers have failed miserably at drumming up support from actual employees.
Take last year’s Black Friday protests. At most, only 100 Walmart associates joined the “nationwide” pickets, meaning that one out of every 13,000 of the company’s employees was striking against the retailer. The rest of the protesters were union funded community groups and paid picketers. That’s not exactly a mass movement, let alone an employee-led strike.
And if anything, it appears that OUR Walmart’s support is waning. This summer, just 50 employees joined union leaders in another “nationwide” protest.
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This week’s protests are unlikely to be any different. A UFCW organizer recently disclosed in an organizing meeting that their goal is for 500 Walmart associates to participate in the “strike” nationwide. It’s as clear a sign as any that Walmart’s employees aren’t buying what unions and their worker center front groups are selling.
Sadly, this lack of employee interest won’t stop these front groups from singing their sad holiday song. Until federal labor laws are amended to cover this labor law loophole, these bogus Black Friday “strikes” may become an annual part of Salt Lake City’s holiday season.
Richard Berman is the executive director of the Center for Union Facts, which operates WorkerCenters.com.