December 04, 2013 Print
    

Washington Black Friday Protest at Wal-Mart the Work of Labor Activists, Not Employees

Last week, OUR Wal-Mart, a subsidiary of the United Food and Commercial Workers Union (UFCW), mounted a series of Black Friday protests targeting Wal-Mart locations around the country, including the Wal-Mart in the Factoria Mall south of Bellevue. Demonstrators are primarily seeking higher wages for Wal-Mart employees. However, the organization’s close ties to the UFCW and its mixed signals about whether it is legally a union may indicate the organization is interested in organizing Wal-Mart employees.   

John Raudabaugh, professor of labor law at Ave Maria School of Law, argues that “even though OUR Wal-Mart is not currently asking for employee representation with Wal-Mart, its end goal is self-evidently to sway the company’s employees to choose unionization.”

Some media outlets gave the impression that the protests were mainly composed of Wal-Mart workers. Even though the National Labor Relations Board recently approved the UFCW practice of providing $50 gift cards to striking Wal-Mart employees, only a few dozen Wal-Mart employees nationwide appeared to have participated in the most recent demonstrations.

The Bellevue Protest

The Bellevue protest drew around 100 people, according to press reports. Bellevue police arrested 15 demonstrators for “failure to disperse"—a misdemeanor crime.

In response to Freedom Foundation public records requests, the Bellevue Police Department provided the names of the 15 arrested protestors. Research into the protestors’ backgrounds reveals:

  • Nearly all are paid activists with ties to organized labor,
  • At most three protestors had worked for Wal-Mart at any time, and
  • The protest was primarily organized by UFCW Local 21.

Brief descriptions of the arrested protestors are provided below.

1. Steven Williamson

Private sector unions are required by the Labor Management Reporting and Disclosure Act (LMRDA) to report certain information about union finances, employees and membership annually to the U.S. Department of Labor. UFCW Local 21’s 2012 LM-2 form lists Steven Williamson as a paid employeequite well paid, in fact. As “assistant to the president,” Williamson earned a base salary of $102,482 in 2012.

2. Tim Burns

Burns is currently an executive board member of Puget Sound Advocates for Retirement Action (PSARA) and is the chair of the 30th Legislative District Democrats. He is also a former union official for the International Association of Machinists (IAM).

PSARA has close ties to organized labor. Four of PSARA’s five officers are current or former union officials. PSARA’s recent November newsletter included a feature article by Jeff Johnson, head of the Washington State Labor Council.

In an article for PSARA’s October newsletter, Burns describes his participation in and arrest at a September Wal-Mart protest in Renton:

  • He was approached by “the organizers of the OUR WalMart demonstration in Renton” about participating in civil disobedience. He explains organizers even put him through a background check to make sure getting arrested “would not produce other legal problems.”
  • “On the day of the action,” writes Burns, “organizers and two attorneys provided by UFCW 21 briefed thirteen of us” who were planning to get arrested.
  • Burns also describes in detail how the planned action was carried out.

Presumably, the larger Black Friday involved a similar process.

3. Catherine Pottinger

Pottinger has a long history of involvement in the labor movement. She currently serves as secretary of both the Puget Sound chapter of the Coalition of Labor Union Women (CLUW) and the Asian Pacific American Labor Alliance. She is also on the Martin Luther King County Labor Council’s Diversity Committee. The Washington Federation of State Employees describes Pottinger as a “long time CLUW activist.”

This was not Pottinger’s first demonstration, nor was it her first arrest, perhaps because pictures of riot-clad police arresting an elderly woman make great PR.

4. Kristen Beifus

According to their website, Beifus is the Executive Director of the Washington Fair Trade Coalition (WFTC), a self-described “coalition of over 60 Washington labor, faith, environmental, farmer, and social justice groups that are committed to creating a fair, balanced, and sustainable global trading system.” While Beifus does not appear to have worked for any labor organizations, she has been involved in past demonstrations. According to Puget Sound Advocates for Retirement Action’s website, Beifus served as MC for the September 5th Wal-Mart protest in Renton.

Furthermore, WFTC’s ties to organized labor are extensive.

Of WFTC’s 62 members, 30 are labor unions. Most of WFTC’s board and staff are current or former labor officials, including President Stan Sorcher of the Society for Professional Engineering Employees in Aerospace, Lynne Dodson and Bob Gorman of the Washington State Labor Council, and Shannon Hagan of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers.

In 2010, the WFTC endorsed the Employee Free Choice Act, a labor-backed law making it easier for unions to organize new workplaces.

5. Collette Cosner

Cosner currently works as the Executive Director of the Domestic Fair Trade Association (DFTA). In an interview, Cosner praises the role of labor unions and living wages and boasts of DFTA’s relationship with unions.

In addition, Cosner serves as board secretary for the Washington Fair Trade Coalition (WFTC), which has close ties to organized labor.

6. Shana Stonehouse

In a November 29th interview on KIRO Radio, Stonehouse claimed she was a former Wal-Mart employee who was fired “because of retaliation” for her participation in previous strike against her employer. She does acknowledge, however, that Wal-Mart claimed to have fired her because of her attendance record. When the interviewer asks Stonehouse to describe her experience at the Bellevue protest, she says:

"It was great. There was thousands of people and none of them besides myself and two other people actually worked for Wal-Mart. They were just people supporting us standing up against Wal-Mart."

First, it is interesting to note that Stonehouse drastically overstated the size of the protests, reporting thousands of protestors when media reports indicated that the demonstration drew around 100 people.

Second, Stonehouse states that only three Wal-Mart workers attended the demonstration, including her. Of course, by her own admission, Stonhouse is not a current Wal-Mart employee, so it is unclear how many current Wal-Mart associates participated in the demonstration.

7. Gerardo Paladan

KPLU’s Ashley Gross reports that Paladan was recently fired from his job at a Federal Way Wal-Mart, allegedly for threatening another employee. He filed a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), lost, and is appealing the decision.

Paladan has a history of activism. Gross reports that he previously got Wal-Mart to settle a complaint with the NLRB about workplace safety. Furthermore, Josh Eidelson references Paladan’s participation in OUR Wal-Mart protests in June targeting Wal-Mart’s annual shareholder meeting in Bentonville, Arkansas. Paladan also participated in a strike at a Federal Way Wal-Mart earlier in November.

8. Betty Shove

Shove appears to be a current Wal-Mart employee. According to the Renton Reporter, Shove was previously arrested at a demonstration at the Renton Wal-Mart in September. She appears to be working closely with OUR Wal-Mart. Writing for Salon.com, labor reporter Josh Eidelson notes that Shove was featured on an OUR Wal-Mart conference call for journalists on Black Friday.

9. Charles Harrah

Though police records listed a “Charles Harrah,” no information was found about a Charles Harrah being involved with the protests. However, Puget Sound Advocates for Retirement Action (PSARA) noted that one of their members, Tony Harrah, was arrested. Since only one person with the last name of “Harrah” was arrested, both reports must reference the same person, though one of the two must have listed an incorrect first name. As documented above, PSARA is closely associated with organized labor and is staffed by labor officials.

10. Richard Burton

One media outlet reporting on the protest described Burton as a “nurse in the Seattle area.” Further research indicates that Burton serves as the political action coordinator for the Washington State Nurses Association. He was also one of the four arrested protestors who hold membership in Puget Sound Advocates for Retirement Action.

11. Others

Of the remaining five arrested protestors, a musician and two employees of a sound and stage company appear to be anomalies in the list of labor activists. Two additional protestors appear to have no identifiable links to any businesses or organizations.   

Conclusion

While OUR Wal-Mart may try to portray such demonstrations as organic protests by Wal-Mart employees, it appears that most protestors targeting the Factoria Wal-Mart on Black Friday were professional labor activists likely recruited and prepared by union organizers. Quite few were ever Wal-Mart associates.

If actual Wal-Mart workers wish to speak out or even demonstrate against their employer, they should be free to do so on their own time. Even striking is legally protected under certain circumstances. Instead, outside interests are engaged in demonizing Wal-Mart for their own benefit, with little support from actual workers. Such activity should be recognized for what it is – a union-run publicity campaign – and denounced.

Author

Maxford Nelsen

Labor Policy Analyst

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