Unions have stopped trying to use Walmart's day-after-Thanksgiving 'Black Friday' sales to launch public relations blitzes against the corporation, effectively conceding that the once-high profile efforts were making little headway toward organizing a union at the nation's largest employer.
"We actually don't have any events planned for Black Friday," said Amy Ritter, spokeswoman for Making Change at Walmart, a nonprofit activist group funded and run by the United Food and Commercial Workers.
Ritter said the union had determined that Black Friday — traditionally the kick-off of Christmas shopping season and a major event for retailers — was no longer as big of an event due to the growth of online sales. The union was still planning a campaign directed at Walmart, she added, and will be airing national TV ads highlighting Walmart's holiday pay policies for its workers and this will run through Christmas.
"We feel that Black Friday is changing with the adoption of online commerce," she said. "We are still intent on getting the message out."
A Walmart spokesperson said the retailer was still holding major in-store sales starting on Thanksgiving Day, and said the store sent out "the usual circulars laying out the deals" for consumers. The spokesperson declined to comment on the union's activities.
It is a stark contrast from previous years when the union claimed that it would hold protests at hundreds of Walmarts across the country and that this was part of a rising movement of workers. In 2014, for example, the union announced it would hold events at 1,600 locations. 2017, however, marks the third year in a row that UFCW wasn't mounting such an effort, a tacit concession that Walmart had outlasted the union.
UFCW, whose members work for Walmart competitors such as Giant and Kroger's, has long sought to organize the Arkansas-based retail chain, which has more than 1.3 million employees. The union created and ran several nonprofit groups over the last decade and half with names like Wake-Up Walmart and OUR Walmart, in addition to Making Change At Walmart, as part of a campaign to force the retailer to agree to a union.
The various groups presented themselves as a grassroots network of workers upset over Walmart's pay levels and other workplace policies. For years, the signature event of these groups was to hold much-hyped Black Friday protests at Walmarts. The intention was to embarrass the company with stories of workers walking out and protesting on one of the busiest shopping days of the year and a day when there is usually little other news.
The groups struggled, however, to attract actual Walmart workers, and most protest events featured non-Walmart union members and other activists bused in by UFCW. A 2013 post-Thanksgiving press conference call by OUR Walmart turned awkward when the group was repeatedly unable to say how many Walmart employees had joined in the group's events. Walmart itself put the figure at just 20.
"It was astroturf. The Walmart employees were not buying what the UFCW was selling," said F. Vincent Vernuccio, senior fellow with the libertarian Mackinac Center.
The union was hampered in part by its own protest-heavy strategy. Under the National Labor Relations Act, a union cannot protest an employer for more than 30 days at a time before it must cease and attempt to organize the workers. Walmart sued the union on that basis in 2012. In an unusual decision the following year, the NLRB allowed the union’s nonprofit arms like OUR Walmart and Making Change at Walmart to continue to protest but only as an independent worker rights groups that could not make any effort to organize the workers.
This allowed UFCW to continue its anti-Walmart campaign indefinitely. However, not being allowed to organize workers meant the union’s campaign could only work if it forced management to agree to negotiations. Despite some rough PR moments, Walmart never did.
In 2015, UFCW's newly-elected President Anthony Perrone sharply cut back on the funding for the events and fired the two main organizers for the events. He was reportedly frustrated that union had failed to organize a single Walmart. The cutbacks caused the size and scope of the events to shrink as well.
Making Change at Walmart's official Twitter posted pictures of Walmart protests this Thanksgiving at Chicago, New York City, Phoenix, and Dover, Del., showing one to two dozen participants at the respective events.
UFCW's current campaign is highlighting a change to Walmart's holiday leave policy: "Up until 2015, Walmart workers were eligible for holiday pay equal to the average daily wage in the 12 weeks leading up to the holiday, but in 2016, Walmart changed its policy and eliminated holiday pay."
In a statement to the Washington Examiner, Walmart said the change was to give workers "control and flexibility" over their time off. "At the end of the year, hourly associates can rollover some unused (paid time off) and can cash out the remainder to use as they please. Those who work on Thanksgiving this year will also receive an additional 15% off an entire basket of goods, for a total of 25% off."
Ritter characterized that as forcing to the employees "to work extra for what they previously got for free."