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Shoppers on Black Friday are probably more interested in finding the best deals on the hottest holiday toys than getting a crash course in progressive politics, but groups targeting Walmart and other major retailers have other plans.
Protests being organized by a group known as OUR Walmart are planned at locations in all 50 states and have the backing of prominent labor unions like the United Food and Commercial Workers, the Service Employees International Union, and the AFL-CIO, an umbrella group for dozens of labor unions.
The protests are intended to call attention to what OUR Walmart says are the low wages and poor working conditions at the massive American retail chain, but some see the efforts as thinly-veiled union activism that would be illegal if carried out by the unions directly.
So, let’s pull back that veil.
OUR Walmart is part of a new breed of labor organizations known as “workers’ centers,” which mix progressive politics with union organizing and a pinch of radical tactics borrowed from groups like Occupy Wall Street. The groups have sprung up in major cities across the country and prefer large, loud protests instead of the traditional collective bargaining process.
And they are backed, vocally and financially, by big unions.
“All over America, workers are organizing in all kinds of ways, and they call their unity by all kinds of names — workers’ unions, associations, centers, networks,” said AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka at the union’s annual conference earlier this year.
Workers centers with ties to SEIU were behind the Labor Day fast food protests that took place in many cities. They’ve also been behind a series of disruptive protests at American restaurant chains over low pay for restaurant workers.
“Contrary to their public façade, union front groups are well-financed, highly sophisticated labor organizations,” said Glenn Spencer, vice president of the Workforce Freedom Initiative, an anti-union group. “When you pull back the curtain, one finds a river of financial support flowing to these groups from activist foundations.’”
OUR Walmart can trace its origins to UFCW, a national union that represents mostly retail employees.
In its 2011 filing with the U.S. Labor Department, UFCW announced it was forming a subsidiary organization known as “Organization United for Respect at Walmart,” later shortened to OUR Walmart.
According to UFCW, the purpose of the subsidiary group is to make “Walmart a better corporate citizen.”
Publicly, UFCW distances itself from OUR Walmart and acts as if the two are separate entities — a posture that everyone from CBS News to The Daily Show has exposed as being fake.
That’s not unusual.
Though they are not required to file the same public reporting documents as unions, the beginnings of most “workers centers” can be connected to the labor movement — literally, in many cases, since SEIU, UFCW and other politically-powerful unions gave much of the initial support and seed money to get those operations off the ground.
Read the fine print at the bottom of the OUR Walmart website, and the connection is even clearer.
“UFCW and OUR Walmart have the purpose of helping Walmart employees as individuals or groups in their dealings with Walmart over labor rights and standards and their efforts to have Walmart publically commit to adhering to labor rights and standards,” reads the legal disclaimer. “UFCW and OUR Walmart have no intent to have Walmart recognize or bargain with UFCW or OUR Walmart as the representative of Walmart employees.”
The group doesn’t want to bargain on behalf of Walmart employees. Instead, it wants to use a mix of negative public relations and loud protests to bend Walmart to its will.
On its face, the entire effort requires convincing the public of two incongruous ideas.
First, the supposedly grassroots groups want Black Friday shoppers to believe the average Walmart wage of $12.83 per hour isn’t enough to raise a family. But secondly, the groups want shoppers to believe those same low-wage workers have enough time and money to organize and fund a multi-city campaign of public relations efforts and protests (not to mention all the protest guides and materials offered through their websites.)
Recently, unions have begun to embrace the workers centers they helped found.
Last week, Trumka and Joseph Hansen, international president of UFCW, were the lead speakers on a conference call announcing the Black Friday protests. Representatives from progressive groups like MoveOn.org joined them.
State level unions have joined the effort too.
“Walmart is the symbol of rising economic inequality in America. The large corporation made $17 billion in profits this year, but pays its employees poverty wages: 825,000 of their employees make less than $25,000 a year, trapping them and their families in a state of economic insecurity,” Pennsylvania AFL-CIO President Rick Bloomingdale said in a statement this week.
In Florida, members of SEIU will protest alongside OUR Walmart at several locations.
If labor unions are funding workers centers, and are increasingly vocal in their support of the organizations’ tactics and policies, why continue to pretend they’re separate?
One answer, perhaps, is that workers centers can get away with things that would be illegal for labor unions to do, such as the protests planned at Walmart stores Friday.
A variety of federal laws limit the activities of labor unions. Importantly, they are not allowed to engage in activities that directly interfere with commerce — picket lines are legal, of course, but the large, loud and disruptive protests carried out by groups like OUR Walmart, the Restaurant Opportunity Center and other workers centers are not subject to those labor laws, because the groups are registered as nonprofits.
“Workers centers give unions a way to play in the legal shadows while skirting accountability and oversight,” said Jim Plunkett, director of labor law policy at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. “By avoiding being labeled as labor organizations, they’re able to play fast and loose with labor requirements.”
Will Patrick contributed to this report. He can be reached at WPatrick@Watchdog.org
Boehm is a reporter for Watchdog.org and can be reached at EBoehm@Watchdog.org. Follow him on Twitter @EricBoehm87.