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Why Walmart is freaking out over a Black Friday labor strike
The world's largest employer is taking pre-emptive action against striking workers, a sign that it sees the disruption as a significant threat
 
Members of OUR Walmart march to the superstore's headquarters in 2011 to present their unified demands: The Walmart employee group is organizing a strike on Black Friday.
Members of OUR Walmart march to the superstore's headquarters in 2011 to present their unified demands: The Walmart employee group is organizing a strike on Black Friday.

Walmart has long been "stridently anti-union," says Hamilton Nolan at Gawker, "fearing that a unionized workforce could be an existential threat to its cut-every-last-penny business model." The world's largest retailer and employer has assiduously nipped union-making in the bud, a strategy that has riled unions whose members have been laid off as Walmart's cheap pricing strategy puts other grocers and retailers out of business. Walmart appears to be falling back on its anti-union strategy once again, filing a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board to preemptively ban a planned strike by Walmart workers on Black Friday.

It is the first time Walmart has made such a complaint in ten years, say Steven Greenhouse and Stephanie Clifford at The New York Times, an indication that Walmart is taking the strike to heart:

Labor experts caution that the complaint, filed on Thursday, could be meant as a warning shot to discourage workers from participating since the labor relations board often takes months to make a ruling, but it nonetheless reflects how seriously the company has come to view a group that it had once dismissed as a nuisance…

All this points to an increasingly fierce contest between Wal-Mart and labor groups that are bent on mobilizing and organizing the company’s work force, with a near-term goal of pressing for higher wages and a longer-term goal of emboldening workers to demand a union.

The protests are being organized by two groups of Walmart workers: Making Change at Walmart and OUR Walmart, both of which have the support of the United Food and Commercial Workers Union. The groups claim that Walmart pays "poverty-level wages," say Greenhouse and Clifford, and that the company retaliates against employees who dare to complain. OUR Walmart says 1,000 protests across the country and "online actions" will take place in the days leading up to Black Friday and on Black Friday itself, with the aim of raising awareness, shaming Walmart into reform, and disrupting the biggest shopping day of the year. 

Combined with "a rare strike by [Walmart] workers last month," the new threat seems to have left the company feeling a little "touchy," says Nolan. Even if Walmart is showing an unusual degree of vulnerability, however, the unions probably have much more to lose, says Renee Dudley at Bloomberg:

To work, the approach will require protest leaders to turn out significant numbers of strikers and persuade deal-chasing shoppers to go elsewhere. Similar protests in recent weeks have had little perceptible impact on the world’s largest retailer.

The Black Friday protests are unlikely to be any different, said Zev J. Eigen, an associate professor at Northwestern University School of Law who specializes in labor relations.

"Shoppers in the parking lot will say 'Oh, that’s terrible — OK, where do I get my discounted electronics,'" said Eigen, who is based in Chicago. "That's one of the big challenges for the labor movement. We'll sign online petitions, but we won’t vote with our wallets."

 

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