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Labor, businesses gird for Black Friday

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Labor and business will clash on Black Friday as union organizers back up Walmart workers protesting for higher wages.

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Activists say support for the demonstrations has grown compared to last year, estimating roughly 1,500 protests will be held across the country on the busiest shopping day of the year. Critics have sought to downplay the protests, citing the heavy union involvement behind the events, in which few of the retail giant’s employees will participate.

Nov. 29 will also be a test for worker centers — nonprofit allies of unions — that are behind the effort to target the nation’s largest private employer. United for Respect at Walmart (OUR Walmart) has become the hub for the protests, which have been going on throughout the year and picking up steam this week, leading up to Black Friday.

Cindy Murray, a founding member of OUR Walmart, said the group wants the company, which reported $17 billion in profits last year, to pay higher wages to its store employees.

“Step up to the plate and let these people live the American Dream,” said Murray, a 14-year Walmart associate at the company's Laurel, Md., outlet. “What we really want is to have Walmart join hands with us.”

Walmart has long been a target of unions as a source for potential organizing, given the retailer’s significant impact on the economy. Consequently, group's demand for higher wages has received union backing.

“If we can change Walmart, we can change the country,” said Pat O’Neill, organizing director for the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union (UFCW). “If Walmart came out tomorrow and said that they were going to pay their workers more, that would have a big impact.”

OUR Walmart is linked to the UFCW. The union lists the group as a “subsidiary” on its reports to the Labor Department.

Those close ties have attracted scrutiny from business groups as well as from House Republicans. They have questioned whether labor has skirted tough disclosure limits for unions by utilizing the worker groups.

Last week, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s Workforce Freedom Initiative released a report blasting worker centers. The study listed foundations that have given funding to prominent worker center groups, tallying up $57 million given to the groups from 2009-2012.

“It is a well-choreographed, union-backed effort to increase organizing and increase collection of workers’ dues money. So in other words, it sort of shows that these guys are professionals who are behind the scenes here and it’s not just this outswell of employee support,” said Jim Plunkett, director of labor law policy at the Chamber.

Brooke Buchanan, a Walmart spokeswoman, defended the company against the protests, noting its store employees can move quickly into management and are offered health benefits and bonuses. She also noted that Walmart’s new chief executive, Doug McMillon, started as a summer associate.

“We are going to have 1 million associates serving our customers starting Thursday through Monday, and that's what we are focused on,” Buchanan said. “We are proud of our jobs and we are sick and tired of people attacking those jobs.”

Murray said she has seen little change in her pay over the years — now $12.40 a hour — and appreciates the union support for her group.

“The UFCW and a whole lot of other folks have stepped up to help. Is there anything wrong with that in the United States? We formed our own organization, made by associates for associates,” Murray said.

Worker centers like OUR Walmart have become the leading edge for unions this year, organizing many of the strikes and walkouts at retailers and fast-food restaurants. That has triggered a backlash from business groups that are trying to stay one step ahead of unions.

“They have been caught off guard by these campaigns by worker centers so they are trying to attack and find the groups’ vulnerabilities,” said Dorian Warren, a Columbia University professor who specializes in labor politics.

Along with OUR Walmart, Walmart also has to deal with a National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) complaint that alleges the company illegally threatened and fired workers who have participated in past demonstrations. Unions have cheered on the charges, but Walmart believes it has acted within the law.

“We look forward to working with the NLRB on the next step but we believe we acted legally and lawfully and we treated our employees with respect,” Buchanan said.

Unions have also targeted the White House’s relationship with the giant retailer.

Both President Obama and first lady Michelle Obama have had kind words for Walmart, much to unions’ chagrin. In turn, labor is backing a petition that calls on Obama to meet with striking Walmart workers.

O’Neill, with UFCW, noted that the president is backing an increase in the federal minimum wage, an issue he should force on the company.

“If really he believes that, he should be pushing Walmart,” O’Neill said. “If Obama heard enough or more from workers, then maybe his attitude would change towards the company.”

Murray, with OUR Walmart, was part of demonstrations earlier this week but will not be joining in the Black Friday protests. The associate has to work both Thursday and Friday, but she hopes that Walmart employees learn that they can stand up to their employer.

“I really want workers to stop being afraid. I want them to understand that they have rights,” Murray said.

This report was updated on Monday at 6:51 p.m.