A former United Food and Commercial Workers official said that the union’s planned Black Friday protests are aimed at unionizing the nation’s largest retailer, despite claims to the contrary.
Former UFCW organizer Rian Wathen disputes the union’s insistence that the protests, which are organized by a nonprofit subsidiary called OUR Walmart, are not intended to impose a union on the company.
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"These front groups are nothing more than a way to organize," Wathen said in a press call Tuesday. "It’s not about anything else."
Wathen worked at Indianapolis-based UFCW Local 700 for 15 years and was "actively involved in the 2002 National Day of Action against Walmart," as well as the planning for nonprofit "front groups" to aid union growth. He became the third-highest-ranking union official in the state and was in charge of collective bargaining and director of organizing.
However, he was ousted from the union after "raising internal ethical issues" about union practices to his higher ups. He said that he harbors "no love for Walmart," but is speaking up against the union’s "deception" about what amounts to a data mining operation that will serve the union’s interests.
"They’re deceiving the Walmart workers … [because] the most viable thing for a union organizer to get the foot in the door is information," Wathen said. "They are asking Walmart employees to sign online or on paper to petitions for the OUR Walmart organization. They are actually using that as a database to collect information which at some point will be shared with the UFCW union … as a genesis for their organizing campaign."
The UFCW and OUR Walmart state explicitly in their legal disclaimers that the protests represent a workers’ rights movement, rather than a union organizing campaign.
"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 publicly commit to adhering to labor rights and standards," the groups say in their protest literature. "UFCW and OUR Walmart have no intent to have Walmart recognize or bargain with UFCW or OUR Walmart as the representative of Walmart employees."
Neither the UFCW nor protest organizers responded to requests for comment.
The legal disclaimers are an important tool in ongoing protests against the retailer. Federal law bars unions from waging continuous organizing campaigns and spontaneous strikes and walk-outs. Nonprofit worker centers, such as OUR Walmart, are not subject to existing labor law and have embraced such tactics.
"There are certain activities that labor organizations cannot do like picketing without representation," Wathen said. "They’re saying [the disclaimer] so they can have their cake and eat it, too."
The company has sought relief in civil courts and federal labor regulators to counter the protests. Five states have barred the UFCW or OUR Walmart demonstrators from setting foot in stores. A California judge ruled that only active Walmart employees could attend such protests, while a National Labor Relations Board judge ordered the union to "cease and desist" protest activities at a Dearborn, Mich., location.
The UFCW and OUR Walmart are not the only groups getting in on the Black Friday action.
Radical environmental groups have endorsed the anti-Walmart campaign in order to advance "eco-justice" and an Alabama protest is being sponsored by the Mobile Bay Socialist Alternative.
"Join Socialist Alternative and other concerned activists as we stand in solidarity with struggling Wal-Mart workers and demand the Walton family share their immense wealth and provide Wal-Mart workers with higher wages and more benefits," the socialist group says in its Facebook event page.
Ryan Williams, spokesman for Worker Center Watch, said that the protests give union organizers a "foot in the door" that gives them access to employees who can someday usher the union into the stores.
"This is an organization that uses paid employees of UFCW, other unions, and leftists groups … [to] intimidate and harass Walmart employees to get information for their ultimate goal of [unionizing] Walmart," Williams said.
Michael Saltsman, research director for the Employment Policies Institute, said the UFCW movement’s popularity among liberal activists is no surprise. He said the protests are designed to appeal to radical politics more than actual Walmart employees.
"Real Walmart employees might be missing from most of these Black Friday protests, but representatives of discredited political ideologies are apparently happy to pitch in," Saltsman said.