Over the past year, groups called worker centers — also called union front organizations or UFOs — have launched repeated “days of action” against multiple fast-food and retail businesses, including here in Florida. They have urged non-union workers to go on strike and claim that thousands of employees have walked off their jobs in solidarity. They maintain that a whole new social movement is spearheading these protests.
Although making for good media, the reality hasn’t been quite so grandiose. In fact, the supposedly massive protests and strikes launched against various employers have typically involved a small cadre of paid union organizers and like-minded compatriots from what might be described as the professional agitating class, whose tactics seem intended primarily to satisfy an itch for excitement and generate press. Very few actual workers seem to be participating.
This truth is revealed in public court documents filed in a Florida lawsuit involving the UFO “OUR Walmart,” which portrays itself as an organic movement of Wal-Mart associates. In reality, OUR Walmart is simply an arm of the United Food and Commercial Workers union (UFCW), which has been trying to unionize Wal-Mart for years.
Although there are many UFOs in existence, OUR Walmart is one of the most active, so the court documents provide a particularly relevant example of how these groups operate and what really goes into a typical “day of action.”
First, the public documents reveal that OUR Walmart consists primarily of paid UFCW staff, not Wal-Mart associates. Aside from these professional organizers, the UFCW also brings in interns to provide bodies for demonstrations. The UFCW provides media and public relations support for the allegedly independent OUR Walmart, and drafts the literature distributed by the group. Finally, the UFCW plans, organizes, directs, and carries out OUR Walmart protests.
Second, the UFCW supplements the ranks of its “protestors” with staff from other unions and union-funded allies. For example, planning for a 2012 “strike” at a Florida Wal-Mart was coordinated with the UFCW, UNITE-HERE, the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), and Interfaith Workers for Justice. UFCW worked with all of these groups to ensure that their protest would look significant.
Coordination for other Florida protests was carried out with groups such as MoveOn.org. Such coordination was apparently needed — in an email sent during the planning for a Miami demonstration one staffer warned that “turnout will be low,” and in another email a lead organizer plaintively refers to “one” Wal-Mart associate who supposedly wanted to go on strike.
What might be described as amateur pranks are another hallmark of UFOs. During one demonstration, a small group of protesters infiltrated a Wal-Mart store to launch an obscenity-laced “flash-mob.” In another instance, six participants drove a van equipped with a projection camera and speakers into a Wal-Mart parking lot so they could beam self-made movies against an outside wall of the store. Organizers of a November 2012 protest instructed a small group of union staff to “trickle into the [Wal-Mart] lot a few at a time so we don’t tip our hand.” In an email sent to his colleagues, one of those organizers stated: “I like the idea of having customer ‘plants’ leave the [checkout] line to join the action. Are there a few folks we can send over early to stand in line?” Authentic grassroots, this is not.
The public court documents highlight the nature of OUR Walmart’s activities, but they could just as easily describe the numerous fast food protests as well. These so-called strikes have been organized and staffed by the SEIU, one of the country’s largest unions, but also seem to lack much employee support.
Despite the picture painted by the SEIU and UFCW, the various and sundry protest activities sponsored by these unions have yet to spark the desired mass uprising. Long on headlines but short on participants, this seems less a social movement than an outlet for wanna-be revolutionaries.
Glenn Spencer is vice president of the Workforce Freedom Initiative at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. See more at www. workforcefreedom.com