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Protests planned at 3 Western Pa. Walmarts

| Wednesday, Nov. 21, 2012, 8:10 a.m.

At least three protests and an unknown number of employee walkouts are taking aim at Western Pennsylvania Wal-Marts, opposing the retail giant's plan to roll back Black Friday into Thanksgiving night.

The union-backed employee group OUR Walmart staged similar demonstrations at stores in recent months to protest what it views as poor working conditions, wages and benefits.

United Food and Commercial Workers union officials denied a direct connection.

“The activists are totally unrelated to us, but (UFCW) Local 23 members are going to be out supporting their activities ... in response to the sort of anti-family scheduling going on and the long-standing grievances that Wal-Mart as a company has been trying to silence for years,” said Richard Granger, strategic program director for the UFCW Local 23 based in Cecil.

Wal-Mart downplayed the planned protests.

“The reality is that there are only a handful of (employees), at a handful of stores scattered across the country, that are participating in these UFCW made-for-TV events,” spokesman Kory Lundberg said. “The overwhelming majority of our 1.3 million (employees) are excited about Black Friday and are ready to serve our customers.”

Lundberg added in-store specials will start at 8 p.m. Thanksgiving.

James Craft, a professor at the University of Pittsburgh's Katz School of Business, called the union's claims that it's not involved in OUR Wal-Mart's campaign “baloney.”

“They've been trained by, supported by and are basically to some extent an independent front of the UFCW,” he said.

Demonstrations could hit about 1,000 of the retailer's 4,500 U.S. stores, including those at Waterworks Mall near Aspinwall, in Collier and in Center, Beaver County, according to Granger and a website for the pro-labor Corporate Action Network in Washington.

The website gives visitors an opportunity to “adopt” or organize an event at one of more than a dozen other area Wal-Marts and Sam's Clubs. It also features campaign materials such as Christmas carols that demonstrators can sing at events, including lyrics to, “I saw Wal-Mart kicking Santa Claus” and “Wal-Mart Sells” to the tune of “Jingle Bells.”

Leaders of OUR Walmart did not return a request for comment.

John Russo, a business professor who directs the Center for Working Class Studies at Youngstown State University, called the “quasi-union” effort a response to Wal-Mart's attempts to stifle unionization. He referred to two cases where the company shut down work units that tried to organize.

“It takes a lot of courage and guts to do that,” Russo said of workers who walk off the job Thursday and Friday, noting if they act in unison they should be protected from firing under federal labor laws.

Local 23 represents more than 13,000 workers in Western Pennsylvania, northern West Virginia, eastern Ohio and western New York, including workers at grocery stores, nursing homes, casinos and liquor stores. Its president, Anthony Helfer, earned $133,515 in wages and benefits in 2011, according to the latest Department of Labor data.

Its workers have gone on strike at least 17 times since 1988, idling a combined 6,900 members for strikes lasting more than 1,100 days in total, according to Labor Research Institute data. Strikes involved Giant Eagle workers three times, including a monthlong strike involving 5,500 workers in 1991; and Shop ‘n Save workers twice, including a 227-day stoppage by about 150 workers at a Monroeville store, records show.

Wal-Mart filed an unfair labor practice charge against the UFCW on Friday, alleging demonstrations OUR Walmart organized threaten to disrupt its business and intimidate customers and store workers who might not support or be involved in the demonstrations. The National Labor Relations Board vowed to issue a decision by Thanksgiving.

“Some people will find what Wal-Mart is being accused of to be offensive, but I suspect it will not be a deterrent for most people who want to get good deals on Black Friday,” Craft said.

Tom Fontaine is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7847 or The Associated Press contributed.

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