Policy: Labor

Labor Relations Board OKs union paying workers to protest Walmart

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Beltway Confidential,Sean Higgins,Labor unions,Labor,NLRB,Analysis,AFL-CIO,Richard Trumka,Walmart

National Labor Relations Board lawyers OKed a major union's practice of paying people to protest against Walmart in a legal memorandum earlier this month. The federal labor law enforcement agency said the practice of paying workers $50 apiece to join protests “did not constitute unlawful … coercion of employees.”

In a Nov. 15 memorandum from the NLRB's general counsel office regarding the so-called “Black Friday” protests staged by United Food and Commercial Workers against the nonunion retailer last year, the NLRB lawyers determined that the UFCW's offer of $50 gift cards to the first 700 Walmart employees who showed up to protest “was a non-excessive strike benefit.”

The lawyers said there was “no evidence to indicate that the gift card was meant to buy support for OUR Walmart.” (CORRECTION: See below.)

OUR Walmart, which presents itself as a group of disaffected Walmart workers, is identified as a subsidiary of UFCW in the memorandum. Along with another UFCW-backed group, Making Change at Walmart, UFCW has been orchestrating a series of public relations attacks against the retailer.

Peter Schaumber, a former NLRB chairman who now works with pro-business groups, agreed the practice would not be illegal, "but really, what it says is that those people are out there protesting because they are getting paid."

UFCW’s members mostly work for Walmart’s rivals. The union has tried for years to organize Walmart’s 1.3 million-member U.S. workforce with no success.

The groups are planning another wave of anti-Walmart strikes this week, highlighting the low pay of some employees. They claim they will have events at as many as 1,500 store locations across the country.

What the protests seem to be largely lacking, though, are actual Walmart employees. At events across the country last year, local media struggled to find anyone on the picket lines who also worked at the store. Some events had none at all.

A second NLRB advice memorandum released on Nov. 15 highlighted this problem for the protesters. It found that Walmart management’s forcing picketers to leave at two different Nov. 22, 2012, protests in Texas was not illegal because one group of protesters had only one Walmart employee. The other protest had none at all. Only when the protests involve employees does the law allow them on company property.

An NLRB spokesman declined to comment on the memos. A spokesman for UFCW or OUR Walmart could not be reached.

The gift-card advice memo is not the first time an action from the NLRB's general counsel has helped the anti-Walmart crusade. On Nov. 19, the counsel's office revealed it was investigating complaints of alleged retaliation by Walmart against employees for participating in last year's Black Friday strikes.

The announcement was made not by the NLRB, but by OUR Walmart during a media call to announce its Walmart protests. Also present at the media call was AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka and UFCW President Joe Hansen.

The NLRB’s lawyers had apparently alerted OUR Walmart just before its media call. The NLRB itself did not publicly confirm the news until hours later.

The agency's general counsel is Richard Griffin, a former NLRB boardmember and, before that, a top lawyer for the AFL-CIO-affiliated International Union of Operating Engineers. Labor officials had campaigned hard for both his board nomination and his appointment as counsel.

News releases from the union-backed activist groups include the unusual disclaimer: "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 [sic] commit to adhering to labor rights and standards. 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 disclaimer serves to protect OUR Walmart from charges that it is engaged in illegal union organizing activities. Under labor law, groups cannot protest a company for more than 30 days without filing notice that they seek to organize its workers. After that, the protests must end. The disclaimer allows OUR Walmart to stage continual protests despite the fact that it is an arm of UFCW.

CORRECTION: The article incorrectly stated that OUR Walmart's $50 gift cards were available "to anyone who showed up to protest" implying that non-Walmart employees could get them. The NLRB memorandum states that the cards were only offered to Walmart employees. The article's headline has been amended.

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