Labor Pains: Because Being in a Union can be Painful

“Dealing With” The Worker Center

Trumka Ad Roll CallThe United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) union has been trying to unionize Wal-Mart stores for over 15 years and had little success despite multiple incarnations of anti-corporate campaigns. The most recent in this series is a two-fer: Making Change at Walmart (an open UFCW project) and the Organization United for Respect at Walmart (OUR Walmart), a worker center supported by UFCW.

The worker center OUR Walmart takes pains to emphasize in public statements that it isn’t the UFCW in new colors (green and black instead of the union’s usual blue and gold). OUR Walmart’s website describes the organization as “an independent, not-for-profit organization for hourly Associates.” An OUR Walmart member told the Wall Street Journal that “OUR Walmart is an independent organization of Walmart associates.” And a UFCW communications staffer told media in Washington state that OUR Walmart “is an independent organization created to change Walmart.”

But is it? The UFCW’s most recent LM-2 filings with the federal government suggest not. They state:

The UFCW has a subsidiary organization maintained in Washington DC named the Organization United For Respect at Walmart whose purpose as stated in the by-laws will be the betterment of the conditions of the current and former associates at Wal-Mart Stores, Inc., within the meaning of Section 501(c)(5) of the Internal Revenue Code…

So that should settle the question of OUR Walmart’s non-independence from UFCW. But what about its union status? The loophole that labor unions seek to exploit in their ongoing campaigns to organize new industries with worker centers ultimately boils down to two words: “dealing with.” The National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) defines a labor organization — a union — as:

Any organization of any kind, or any agency or employee representation committee or plan, in which employees participate and which exists for the purpose, in whole or in part, of dealing with employers concerning grievances, labor disputes, wages, rates of pay, hours of employment, or conditions of work.

If a worker center seeks to “deal with” employers, then it’s a union, and it’s subject to labor unions’ regulations limiting organizational picketing. If it isn’t, then it isn’t, and the thirty-day limit on picketing before submitting a representation petition does not apply. The UFCW and OUR Walmart (through UFCW, naturally) made a statement to the National Labor Relations Board disavowing intent to organize Wal-Mart workers.

However, their attorneys said something different to the California Superior Court for Los Angeles County. Labor unions have certain rights under the National Labor Relations Act and California state law to access an employer’s property that general public agitators do not have.

But, when Wal-Mart sued OUR Walmart for trespassing in its stores, OUR Walmart took what appears to be the view that it is a labor union and does have those labor union rights. OUR Walmart’s attorneys stipulated:

OUR Walmart is a labor organization but only insofar as it seeks to “deal with” Walmart within the meaning of the National Labor Relations Act and has received assistance from the UFCW.

So, what is it? Is OUR Walmart seeking (or does it intend to seek) to “deal with” Wal-Mart under NLRA or not? If you’re an OUR Walmart/UFCW attorney, it seems to be whichever you believe is most useful.

Categories: AFL-CIOAnti-Corporate CampaignsUFCWWorkers Center