Politics & Policy

Is This the Beginning of the End for the Union Harassment Campaign Against Walmart?

Union-led protest outside a Walmart in Chicago, June 2014. (Scott Olson/Getty)

As media outlets dutifully reported last week’s fast-food protests for a $15 minimum wage, another big labor story went relatively unnoticed.

The Washington Post reported that the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) has “slashed” more than half of the funding for its “OUR Walmart” campaign. According to the Post, the UFCW’s new president campaigned on the platform that too many resources had been devoted to the effort — in other words, it seems like a majority of the UFCW’s 1.3 million members agreed.

Few people outside the UFCW’s leadership will ever know how much the union spent on its campaign against Walmart. As the Post noted, the UFCW doesn’t break down the amounts it has spent on the campaign. But we can safely assume that an effort that spanned decades racked up a hefty price tag.

Previous attempts by the UFCW to attack the nation’s largest retailer under banners like “Wake Up Walmart” and “Walmart Watch” fell mostly flat. The company’s reputation took a few hits, but the UFCW failed to diminish overall sales or — more important — organize any employees.

Undeterred, the UFCW launched “Organization United for Respect at Walmart” — or OUR Walmart – in 2010. Apart from its more benign and inclusive-sounding name, OUR Walmart gave the UFCW an advantage it didn’t have with previous anti-Walmart campaigns. The group promoted itself as a nonprofit worker center whose membership consisted of former and current Walmart employees seeking broad improvements in wages and benefits. In reality, OUR Walmart was and remains a thinly veiled extension of the UFCW, created to operate outside restrictions imposed by federal labor laws.

The launch of the OUR Walmart campaign signaled the UFCW’s shift from targeting individual stores for organizing to a national strategy meant to demonize the chain and garner support from company employees and the public. For the last several years, the UFCW affiliate gained notoriety for protesting Walmart on Black Friday, the busiest shopping day of the year. Unfortunately for the union, the OUR Walmart campaign backfired — badly.

Courts and authorities in several states barred the UFCW and OUR Walmart from trespassing on company property. A Maryland judge, for example, declared that activists taking part in the anti-Walmart campaign had to post a $10,000 bond that would be forfeited “for the payment of any damage” if they refused to obey an injunction. Walmart also sued to keep labor activists out of its Florida locations after the UFCW continued to illegally trespass in stores, disrupt customers, and even use crude tactics such as handing “a rotten pumpkin painted in support of OUR Walmart” to a store manager in Orlando.

A Texas appeals court ruled that the labor unions and protesters behind the mass demonstrations at Walmart had to face trespassing allegations. The company filed suit last year after the UFCW and OUR Walmart repeatedly entered stores, ignored no-solicitation signs, blocked access to parking lots, screamed through bullhorns, and staged flash mobs. As a result of protests in Michigan, the National Labor Relations Board ordered the UFCW to stop “restraining and coercing employees” while protesting. According to an NRLB complaint from 2014, two UFCW officials stormed into a Dearborn store’s electronics department with “50 to 80 unknown individuals” and interfered with shoppers while intimidating employees. Eight other protesters, including one man, then barged into the women’s restroom and “coercively interrogated an employee regarding her wages, hours and working conditions.”

In fact, court rulings and findings by the NLRB forced the union to issue a public disclaimer pledging to not enter Walmart property except to shop in Arkansas, California, Colorado, Florida, Maryland, and Texas. In other words, courts across the country agreed that the UFCW’s methods as exercised through OUR Walmart were unlawful.

After years of protests and battling Walmart, it seems clear that some members of the UFCW are finally losing their appetite for a campaign that has no end in sight. But before anyone toasts the demise of the alternative-labor movement, remember that the OUR Walmart campaign has been suspended before.

Its predecessors, Wake Up Walmart and Making Change at Walmart, both experienced fits and starts as the SEIU and UFCW ramped up organizing efforts during periods of perceived opportunity. There will surely be more protests against Walmart this November, albeit on a more modest scale.

Ultimately, though, how much longer will UFCW members stomach a huge investment that has no tangible results and doesn’t even organize new employees?

— Ashley Pratte is a senior adviser for Worker Center Watch.

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