Walmart launched a large-scale response this week to a series of unprecedented labor strikes, according to a confidential document obtained by The Huffington Post.
The seven-page internal memo, issued Oct. 8, is intended for salaried employees only, and contains instructions on how to respond to strikes by hourly workers that spread to 28 Walmart stores in 12 cities earlier this week. The strikes were the first by Walmart retail employees in the company’s 50-year history.
The memo makes clear that Walmart, the world’s largest private employer, views the labor protests as a serious attack, a message that runs contrary to the company’s public comments that the strikes are mere “publicity stunts,” as Walmart’s vice president of communications David Tovar told The Huffington Post Tuesday.
“As you know,” the memo opens, “activists or union organizers have been trying for years to stop our Company’s growth and to damage our relationship with our customers and members. One of the activists’ or union organizers’ tactics is to try to disrupt the business by urging our associates to participate in a walkout or other form of work stoppage.”
The majority of the memo is aimed at instructing managers not to violate workers’ legal right to engage in concerted activity, or non-union labor organizing. Managers are directed not to “discipline” employees who engage in walkouts, sit-ins or sick-outs.
Legal experts said the confidential memo shows an unprecedented level of caution from a company that has taken harsh stances towards employee attempts to organize in the past.
“Walmart probably has in mind that the Obama NLRB [National Labor Relations Board] often sides with unions over management,” said Lance Compa, a labor law professor at Cornell University’s School of Industrial Relations in Ithaca, N.Y. “So they’re being extremely cautious.”
The memo is peppered with Walmart management jargon, offering a window into the secretive corporate culture built by founder Sam Walton. Managers are reminded over and over of the acronym TIPS (Threaten Intimidate Promise Spy) when dealing with potential labor organizing by hourly-wage “associates.” The widely used human resources term serves to remind managers that they cannot, by law, threaten or intimidate workers who organize, promise them benefits if they stop organizing, or spy on their activities.
What managers can legally do, however, is what Walmart calls FOE — offer workers Facts, Opinions, and Personal Experiences about labor organizing. Walmart offers a sample opinion that says, “I don’t think a walkout is a good way to resolve problems or issues.” According to Compa, this is a boilerplate tactic for companies looking to discourage unionizing without breaking the law.
The historic retail worker strikes began last Friday in Los Angeles, when 60-some people walked off work, and they quickly spread across the country. Earlier in September, workers at warehouses owned by Walmart in Illinois and California also went on strike.
Striking workers are demanding that Walmart end retaliatory practices against employees who attempt to organize by Nov. 23, Black Friday. If not, they will strike again on the biggest shopping day of the year, according to Colby Harris, a Walmart worker from Dallas, who participated in Tuesday’s strike.
Walmart spokesman Dan Fogleman said the strikes were largely publicity stunts. “We’ve seen the unions hold these made for TV events outside our stores for about ten years now,” he told HuffPost, “and they want the publicity to help further their political and financial agendas. There is a very small number of associates raising these concerns, and they don’t represent the views of the vast majority of our 1.3 million associates.”
According to Compa, the memo reflects Walmart’s concern over the 20-some charges of unfair labor practices that Walmart workers filed with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) over the past 8 weeks in concurrence with the strikes.
The charges include dozens of allegations from employees who claim they were subjected to harassment, cut hours and other disciplinary actions when Walmart higher-ups learned that they supported OUR Walmart, the United Food and Commercial Workers-backed worker group that organized the recent strikes. If the NLRB sides with the workers, Walmart may eventually be forced to pay a huge settlement in back pay, the specific amount of which would vary for each individual case.
Fogleman said the company has “very strict policies against retaliation. If an associate feels that they have been retaliated against, we want to know that. That allows us the opportunity to look into it and take appropriate action.”
Politics may also play a role in the company’s newfound caution. Top positions at the NLRB are appointed by the president, and Democrats have traditionally been more sympathetic to labor organizers.
Notably, the leaked memo lacks many of Walmart’s famously tough labor policies.
In the past, internal Walmart documents instructed managers to remind employees that they could be permanently replaced if they went on strike, as well as provided talking points on the false guarantees unions make to workers, according to a 2007 report by Human Rights Watch that examined 292 NLRB charges against Walmart. The new document bears no mention of replacing employees.
At one point, Walmart is even more cautious than the law requires. The document does not instruct managers to evict employees conducting a sit-in on company property, as is within their legal right, according to Compa, who also serves as a consultant to Human Rights Watch.
Still, a few of the strategies that made Walmart famous as a union-buster rear their heads in the document. Tacked onto the end of the memo is a definition of the term, “Coaching By Walking Around” (CBWA), or “when managers walk through their facility or department everyday just to visit with associates,” as Walmart explains it. While it may sound benign, the verb “to coach” in Walmart lexicon also means to discipline employees. According to workers interviewed by Human Rights Watch, Walmart managers have used CBWA as a surveillance tactic to monitor and deter labor organizers.
Fogleman, the Walmart spokesman, defended the CWBA, saying that management uses it as a tool to “remain engaged with everyone working for them and with environment. It helps foster the channels of open dialogue that set us apart as an employer.”
It remains to be seen whether the new directives will have a long-term impact on Walmart managers. “I think it’s one thing to get a piece of paper, but in practice that’s not what people have experienced in these stores,” said Sarita Gupta, executive director of Jobs with Justice, a nonprofit workers rights group. Gupta cautions that one document is unlikely to alter five decades of anti-union corporate culture. “What I worry about is that our experience with Walmart management is they say they’ll respect workers, and then their actions tell a different story.”
Walmart also could have ulterior motives for considering workers rights, such as covering itself in upcoming Unfair Labor Practice proceedings. “Walmart could say, in effect, ‘Look, it says right here, we told our supervisors ‘don’t retaliate’ –- so we must be innocent,” said Compa, the law professor. Compa noted that this is a possible motivation for Walmart to have put such “extremely circumspect” manager instructions down on paper at a time like this.
For Dan Schlademan, director of the UFCW’s Making Change at Walmart campaign, the motives of the memo are less important than its overall effect on workers. “I’ve been doing this work for 20 years, and I’ve never seen a document like this.”
“What’s important about this piece of paper is that it solidifies what people saw for the first time during the strikes, which is that Walmart employees were able to walk out in protest, and the next day were able to return to work. For many of them, that was amazing to see.”