Labor Pains: Because Being in a Union can be Painful

The Wal-Mart Not-Strike by the Not-Labor Union

If you went to a Wal-Mart this weekend, chances are that you had more trouble getting to the best deals thanks to obstructions from your fellow shoppers, not because of a much-ballyhooed, but little-attended labor action.

It turns out that the proposed strike, walkout, protest — whatever you want to call it — really didn’t amount to anything. And even if you spotted a few of these lonely folks, there was no guarantee that they were even Wal-Mart employees. And that’s even with the $50 gift card enticement that the organizers offered give out if you wanted to “sponsor a striker.”

The groups behind the effort, Organization United for Respect at Walmart (OUR Walmart) and Making Change at Walmart are both efforts of the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) union. The UFCW has long pined to get a foot in the door at America’s largest retailer, but to date, its efforts have resulted in complete failure.

And this weekend’s actions appear to be a repeat performance of the union coming up short.  Most reports found a handful of employees at a protest, if there were any at all. Regardless of the numbers, even the highest estimates wouldn’t make much of a dent in the 1.4 million people employed by Wal-Mart.

Wal-Mart attempted to stop the proposed action last week, but the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) was unable to reach a decision before the non-events, claiming that it was “complex” and could not be decided so quickly. A recent paper published in Engage, the practice journal of The Federalist Society, takes a closer look at groups such as OUR Walmart and explains what types of issues the NLRB will likely have to address in its ruling.

Along with several other labor groups, OUR Walmart is classified as a “worker center,” not a labor union like the Teamsters or the United Auto Workers, for example. As authors Stefan Marculewicz and Jennifer Thomas explain, worker centers are able to avoid complying with the laws that affect labor organizations, including the protections given to workers by federal law.

We certainly do not take any position in this article with respect to the value these worker centers may offer to workers.  However, no organization, no matter how laudable its mission, is above reproach.  Just as corruption plagued the labor movement in the last century, and gave rise to the legislation that governs labor organizations and provides workers the basic protections enjoyed today, so too could similar malfeasance cloud the efforts of worker centers.  Compliance with the NLRA and LMRDA serves not only as a protection for workers, but also, perhaps, as a validator of the worker centers that claim to represent them.

A goal of many worker centers is to ensure that employers of their members comply with the basic laws that offer protections to the workers.  It is quite reasonable to expect worker centers to comply with them as well.

So what of OUR Walmart? The group is considered a subsidiary of the UFCW and its goals for how it plans to affect change at Wal-Mart include alterations to wages and hours of employment as well as other employment-related policies. The group has also directly demanded these changes on Wal-Mart’s management. For these reasons, Marculewicz and Thomas find that OUR Walmart should be considered a “labor organization” under federal law and must therefore follow the rules that they are currently avoiding.

Labor, in making a lot of noise about Wal-Mart and not backing it up with any real action, may damage itself by bringing more attention to its apparent end-run around federal labor law.

Categories: Anti-Corporate CampaignsCenter for Union FactsNLRB