Walmart Sues UFCW and ‘Worker Center’ Allies for Florida Store Disruptions

Union activism at retail chain stores has come to blur the line between persuasion and harassment. But one retailer — Walmart — is pushing back, underscoring its failed campaign to appease left-wing activist groups. There is a certain irony here. Walmart for years has been capitulating to the demands of anti-business activists, a tendency documented in an NLPC Special Report published in 2006 titled, Wal-Mart Embraces Controversial Causes: Bid to Appease Liberal Interest Groups Will Likely Fail, Hurt Business. Yet last Friday the Bentonville, Ark.-based retailer filed suit in Florida state court against the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union (UFCW), and certain allied nonprofit groups and individuals.  The purpose of the suit, notes the company, is to protect  customers and associates from the activists’ “disruptive tactics” associated with trespassing.

Union Corruption Update several weeks ago discussed at length the rapidly growing phenomenon of “worker centers” and why they are changing the nature of labor relations in this country. These nonprofit groups, currently numbering about 200 nationwide, aren’t unions nor do they announce themselves as such. Yet they operate in ways highly similar to unions so as to achieve the goals of union organizing, all the while circumventing federal labor laws, especially as they pertain to onsite picketing and financial disclosure. Worker centers have become especially common in the retailing and restaurant industries, where labor forces heavily consist of unskilled immigrants, many of them illegally in the U.S. The article described the centers as “a low-cost, non-bureaucratic win-win arrangement for ecumenical Leftism.” Employing onsite guerrilla tactics similar to those of ACORN and its successor organizations, worker centers have the potential to steer many workers into unions by holding off-premises seminars and workshops. Through such events, these groups can gauge worker grievances on wages, benefits, working conditions, promotion practices and other potential areas of dissatisfaction, and build organizing strategies around them.

One of the more prominent of these groups is Organization United for Respect at Walmart, or simply, “OUR Walmart.” Consisting of several thousand current and former Walmart employees, it declares: “We envision a future in which our company treats us, the Associates of Walmart, with respect and dignity.” There’s nothing controversial about a desire for respect and dignity. We all desire that. The problem is that OUR Walmart is a functionary of the United Food and Commercial Workers all but in name. The 1.3 million-member union has promised to assist the group in reviewing more than 100 cases of alleged violations of Walmart worker rights. It also has supplied manpower for demonstrations at Walmart sites. In other words, this worker center wants the rights of a union, but not the legally-enforceable responsibilities that go along with them.

Last fall, OUR Walmart and the UFCW initiated a joint picketing campaign at Walmart outlets across the country. Their effort sought to dramatize what organizers saw as management’s manipulation of hours and benefits in preparation for “Black Friday”; i.e., the day after Thanksgiving and often the busiest shopping day of the entire year. In 2012, Black Friday fell on November 23. Workers at various stores and warehouses in California began walking off their jobs on November 14. Organizers also had planned demonstrations in the Chicago, Dallas, Miami and other major metropolitan areas. Walmart wasted little time in firing back. On November 16, the company filed an unfair labor practices complaint with the National Labor Relations Board, arguing that the campaign violated the NLRA’s ban on nonunion group picketing of a given work site for more than 30 days in lieu of the group filing a petition to form a union. OUR Walmart countersued, claiming the 30-day rule didn’t apply in cases of employer retaliation; apparently, this was such a case. The two sides reached an agreement in late January. The union and OUR Walmart agreed to: 1) stop all unlawful picketing to obtain formal collective bargaining recognition; 2) stop encouraging unlawful disruptions by nearly 30 affiliated groups; and 3) stop all picketing and confrontational conduct at Walmart stores and other facilities for at least 60 days. Management, for the meantime, had won.

This case proved to be round one. On March 22, Walmart filed a civil suit in Orange County, Florida state circuit court (No. 2013-CA-004293) alleging that union demonstrators over the previous eight months had been aggressively trespassing on store property in a number of Florida locations. The suit named the following as defendants: the United Food and Commercial Workers; OUR Walmart; Central Florida Jobs with Justice; and individuals Angela Williamson, Alex Rivera and Alan Hanson. In one instance, a group of protestors last July allegedly shot a video promoting OUR Walmart on the side of a store in Orlando and passed out the group’s literature inside that store. Some three months later, on October 30, 2012, a group of UFCW demonstrators returned to that store. The suit states that union activists “confronted the store manager and handed him a rotten pumpkin painted in support of OUR Walmart. The group left the store only after the manager warned that he had called the police.”

The UFCW and its allies see themselves as simply fighting for justice, given that the company has made itself unavailable for negotiations. “Rather than creating good jobs with steady hours and affordable health care, Walmart’s pattern is to focus its energies on infringing on our freedom of speech,” remarked OUR Walmart in a prepared statement. Denise Diaz, executive director of Central Florida Jobs with Justice, put it similarly: “This is another attempt on Walmart’s behalf of…silencing their employees and also the communities that support them.” The UFCW was unavailable for verbal comment upon the announcement of the suit. And their website contains no statement either. But it’s a fair bet that they’re mobilizing resources against it.

It would be easy to cast this as a classic David vs. Goliath struggle pitting poor, exploited Walmart workers and their allies against a heartless multinational behemoth with annual revenues now exceeding $450 billion. Yet such a perspective misses the mark for several reasons. First, Wal-Mart, like prominent competitors Target, Costco and Dollar Tree, is in the business of discount retailing. It doesn’t serve the same market as Nordstrom, Macy’s or even Sears. Low prices aren’t just a selling point for Walmart; they are the main selling point. That’s why wages and benefits tend to be lower here than at middle- or upper-level retailers. Second, Walmart may or may not be open to raising its overall compensation levels to those of an acknowledged leader such as Costco. But aggressive trespassing isn’t the way for workers to make a compelling case. Such a style merely serves to irritate shoppers as well as store managers. Third, property rights do matter. The UFCW and its allied worker centers may seethe, but Walmart owns its stores. As such, it can admit or deny access to their premises on its own terms. As aggressive trespassing has the potential to harm Walmart’s profitability, management has every right to tell such demonstrators to get lost. Fourth and finally, a victory for the union over the largest retailer in the world would signify to every company of all sizes, unionized or not, that it, too, could be next. No firm would be safe from the wrath of demonstrators invoking lofty terms such as “justice,” “respect” and “dignity.”

None of this is to suggest that the United Food and Commercial Workers shouldn’t be allowed to collectively bargain for better wages, benefits and working conditions. The National Labor Relations Act guarantees this right. But this doesn’t absolve the UFCW and its newfound allies from playing by the rules. In the end, they have to respect Walmart management’s right to use their property for business purposes without intimidation. Moreover, if a worker center is going to behave as a union, it should formally become or join one. These nonprofit groups appear to want it both ways – all the advantages of union organizing without any of the rules that govern unions.