Wal-Mart hasn’t said much about the National Labor Relations Board’s announcement last week that it’s prepared to issue a complaint – similar to an indictment - on charges the retail giant illegally fired and intimidated activist workers. But the company does want to talk about a memo, issued by the NLRB’s associate general counsel three days earlier, finding that labor organizers did not break the law last year by offering gift cards for striking workers.
In an e-mail sent hours before today's protests, Wal-Mart charged “Unions Paid $50 to Anyone Who Protested Walmart,” and said that “The LA Times is the latest major publication to report that unions are literally paying people – anyone – to show up at demonstrations for Black Friday.” The e-mail continued, “The NLRB said the practice of giving $50 gift cards to anyone who shows up to a protest is legal. Let’s remember when union-backed demonstrations brag about their numbers, they’re paid to be there.”
But that isn’t what the NLRB said, or what the LA Times reported.
According to the NLRB memo, before last year’s Black Friday walkout, “the Union advertised a $50 gift card to the first 700 employees who walked off the job on Black Friday.” The NLRB noted a campaign e-mail which said “Going on strike is never an easy decision. We are all barely getting by as it is…the first 700 Associates who sign up to strike will get a $50 gift card for us to use to buy groceries for our families.” Rejecting a Wal-Mart allegation that the gift cards were illegal, the NLRB associate general counsel concluded that the offer “did not restrain or coerce employees,” but rather represented a “non excessive strike benefit designed to reimburse employees for some of their lost wages if they struck, and was non discriminatory.”
In other words, it’s legal for unions or supporters to chip in to help cushion the economic cost of giving up wages to strike (though such collections may be more common in longer strikes than in one-day walkouts). Nothing in the NLRB’s memo about gift cards for employees who struck justifies Wal-Mart’s claim that unions are “paying people – anyone – to show up at demonstrations…” Neither does reporter Ricardo Lopez’s LA Times story, which references “the practice of paying Wal-Mart strikers last year…” Wal-Mart did not immediately respond to inquiries regarding what basis it has for claiming that “Unions Paid $50 to Anyone Who Protested Walmart.”
The gift card story was also pushed by Worker Center Watch, a new anti-union group which The Nation’s Lee Fang reported “was registered by the former head lobbyist for Walmart,” and by Wal-Mart Vice President David Tovar, who in a Tuesday e-mail told reporters, “Don’t take our word that these people you might see on TV are mainly paid protesters; take the UFCW’s.” He claimed the NLRB had “approved the NLRB’s habit of paying people to protest outside our stores.” Tovar’s e-mail linked to a story in the conservative Washington Examiner which cited the same November 15 NLRB memo, but described it as involving “the UFCW’s offer of $50 gift cards to anyone who showed up to protest…” (In contrast, the memo actually refers to “anyone who struck…”) Noting that the gift cards were $50, Tovar added, “I assume we can look forward to a new activist group forming to demand a living wage for Walmart protesters…”
Comments by Tovar (“depending on the circumstances,” he told CNN, “there could be consequences” for not coming to work) are among the evidence offered by OUR Walmart in charges that Wal-Mart broke the law in trying to restrain strikes. Unlike Wal-Mart’s gift card allegations, the NLRB found sufficient merit in some of those charges to issue a complaint (charges by Wal-Mart that the United Food & Commercial Workers union was involved in illegal picketing were resolved in a de facto settlement last winter). Tovar received a promotion from Wal-Mart shortly before the NLRB announced it was ready to issue a complaint.
Asked about that potential complaint, Wal-Mart spokesperson Kory Lundberg e-mailed, “The remaining claims are at a procedural step in an ongoing process, and we look forward to continuing to work with the NLRB and using this opportunity to shed light on the facts.”
Asked about Wal-Mart’s gift card claims, OUR Walmart sent a statement from employee Richard Reynoso accusing the company of “desperately trying to change the conversation rather than improve jobs,” and another from Rob Wohl of SumOfUs.org, a group which helped raise money for strikers. “We’re proud to support Walmart workers,” said Wohl, “but it’s really Walmart that should be paying its workers enough to cover groceries.” Making Change at Walmart, which like the non-union workers group OUR Walmart is closely tied to the United Food & Commercial Workers union, is currently directing its fundraising efforts towards funding workers fired by Wal-Mart to organize other workers full-time.