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posted: 11/19/2012 5:11 PM

Wal-Mart shoppers seen overrunning Black Friday union protests

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  • Walmart shoppers' reaction to proposed worker protests outside stores this week is in question.

      Walmart shoppers' reaction to proposed worker protests outside stores this week is in question.
    ASSOCIATED PRESS

 
Bloomberg News

NEW YORK -- Wal-Mart Stores workers demanding better pay and benefits vow to mount 1,000 protests online and outside stores up to and including Black Friday. The strategy risks showing the company's strength not vulnerability.

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, 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."

For years, the United Food & Commercial Workers union has tried and failed to organize Wal-Mart workers. In recent months, the union has adopted a new tactic: backing two groups, OUR Walmart and Making Change at Walmart, and waging a media campaign and mounting protests comprised of activists and Walmart workers at stores and warehouses around the U.S.

The protest organizers have declined to say how many Wal-Mart associates they expect to be involved in the latest round of actions. About 30 workers from six Seattle-area stores went on strike Nov. 15, and others plan to do so, the groups' members have said. Wal-Mart has more than 4,500 stores and clubs and 1.4 million employees in the U.S.

While Eigen compared the movement to "a few drops of food coloring in a giant vat of water," he added a caveat: "It is significant because Wal-Mart has such a strong reputation of shutting down even the tiniest, tiniest labor actions."

On an earnings call Nov. 15, Wal-Mart Chief Financial Officer Charles Holley said he was "not aware of any major disruptions that are going to happen Black Friday."

Still, later that day Wal-Mart fired a warning shot, filing a complaint against the union with the National Labor Relations Board. Wal-Mart accused the group of violating federal labor laws by inappropriately picketing, demonstrating, trespassing on company property and intimidating customers and employees -- or making threats to do those things.

The union has tried to force Wal-Mart to the bargaining table even though it does not officially represent employees, according to the complaint. Wal-Mart asked the board for an investigation and immediate injunction.

"We are taking this action now because we cannot allow the UFCW to continue to intentionally seek to create an environment that could directly and adversely impact our customers and associates," David Tovar, a Wal-Mart spokesman, said in an emailed statement. "If they do, they will be held accountable."

The protesters are demanding more-predictable schedules, less-expensive health-care plans and minimum hourly pay of $13 with the option of working full-time. The average hourly full-time wage at Walmart is $12.57, Kory Lundberg, a company spokesman, said in an email.

Wal-Mart's refusal to improve working conditions ultimately will be self-defeating, Lynsey Kryzwick, a spokeswoman for the non-profit Making Change at Walmart, said in a Nov. 16 telephone interview.

"Under-staffing going on in stores leads to low customer service leads to lower sales," she said.

On Nov. 15, Wal-Mart forecast fourth-quarter profit that trailed analysts' estimates after economic conditions slowed U.S. sales gains. Fourth-quarter profit will be $1.53 to $1.58 a share, the Bentonville, Ark.-based company said in a statement. The average estimate of analysts surveyed by Bloomberg was $1.59.

Chief Executive Officer Mike Duke has been reducing prices to lure shoppers that are still suffering amid sluggish economic growth and 7.9 percent unemployment. Discount chains such as Dollar General Corp. and Dollar Tree Inc. have attracted some of those customers with smaller-format stores that allow for quicker trips and by adding food items.

The shares fell the most in more than six months after the earnings report on Nov. 15 and by the next day had lost a combined 5 percent to close in New York at $68.03. The shares have risen 14 percent this year.

For Wal-Mart to acknowledge the union's demands, many more employees will have to be willing to walk off the job, said Ross Eisenbrey, vice president of the Economic Policy Institute, a Washington-based non-profit group that researches issues for American workers.

"If this is as big as the strikes and protests ever get, it's not going to amount to much," he said.

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