The NLRB Rules Against Target
There are more than 1,750 Target stores nationwide, and none have been organized by a union. This fact was not lost on the National Labor Relations Board (the Board) when, on April 26, 2013, it affirmed the decision of an Administrative Law Judge that Target Corporation (Target)’s no-solicitation/no-distribution policy violated the National Labor Relations Act (the Act) and ordered Target to amend its policies nationwide. The consolidated cases, known as Target Corporation and United Food & Commercial Workers (UFCW) Local 1500, 359 NLRB No. 103 (2013), originated when the UFCW filed charges with the Board following an unsuccessful organizing campaign at a Target store in Valley Stream, New York.
The key issue addressed by the Board was whether Target maintained a no-solicitation/no-distribution policy that violated employees’ Section 7 rights under the Act. Target’s policy prohibited solicitation on the store’s premises at all times if it was for “personal profit,” “commercial purposes,” or “a charitable organization that isn’t part of the Target Community Relations program and isn’t designed to enhance the company’s goodwill and business.” The Board focused on the ban on solicitation “for commercial purposes,” finding that Target failed to define the phrase or provide illustrative examples to clarify what it meant. Because the phrase was undefined, the Board found that Target employees could have interpreted the phrase to ban solicitation and distribution on behalf of unions, which would violate the Act.
Ultimately, the Board ordered Target to rescind nationwide its no-solicitation/no-distribution rule and to:
[f]urnish all current employees nationwide with inserts for their current employee handbooks that (1) advise that the unlawful rules listed above have been rescinded, or (2) provide lawfully-worded rules on adhesive backing that will cover the unlawful rules; or publish and distribute to all current employees nationwide revised employee handbooks that (1) do not contain the unlawful rules, or (2) provide lawfully-worded rules.
The Board also set aside the union’s unsuccessful election attempt and ordered a new election to take place under the direction and supervision of the Regional Director.
Is Walmart The Next Target?
Walmart has more than 4,500 retail locations in the United States, and like Target, none are unionized. In recent months, the UFCW-backed group OUR Walmart has been advocating for strikes in several locations. On May 28, 2013, several media outlets reported a new round of strikes coordinated by OUR Walmart in advance of Walmart’s June 7, 2013 annual shareholder meeting.
In addition to the strike efforts, the UFCW, OUR Walmart, and Walmart have filed dozens of NLRB charges against each other in 2013. In May, the labor-backed group filed a new round of charges with the NLRB. Meanwhile, Walmart has filed lawsuits against the UFCW and OUR Walmart in Florida and California state courts in recent months alleging trespass and unlawful organizing activity on Walmart property.
Though the Board is currently under scrutiny based on recent court decisions invalidating the President’s recess appointments, the charges against Walmart provide it with another opportunity to make a nationwide statement against a non-union employer. Given the Board’s recent penchant for union activism, do not be surprised if it takes a close look at Walmart’s policies and practices in the coming months.
The Fast Food Industry
On May 15, 2013 hundreds of Milwaukee fast food workers walked off their jobs and launched a one-day strike demanding a raise to $15 per hour and the right to unionize without intimidation or retaliation. This was the fifth such strike in six weeks, following strikes in St. Louis and Detroit the week before, and in New York and Chicago in April. In each of those strikes, local groups organized fast food workers with support from the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), one of the nation’s largest unions. All of these strikes were preceded or followed by the filing of a slew of NLRB charges against the employers, alleging myriad unfair labor practices.
These strikes share several common characteristics. Each was a one-day strike by fast food workers, backed by ad hoc coalitions of unions and community groups. In the case of the Milwaukee strike, the organizing group was called “Wisconsin Citizen Action,” and the campaign was called “Raise Up, MKE.” The St. Louis campaign was called “STL Can’t Survive on $7.35,” and Detroit’s was called “D15.” These strikes have all been part of “minority unionism” campaigns, where the focus is on staging actions by a minority of the workforce designed to inspire their co-workers, rather than waiting until they have gained support from a majority of the workers. The short duration of the strike is calculated to minimize the risk that striking workers will be replaced by their employers after walking off.
The spread of these fast food strikes, as well as strikes by non-union workers in retailers like Walmart, comes amid a long-term decline in strikes in the U.S. Both the fast food and retail industries are overwhelmingly not unionized. The strategy pursued by the groups organizing these strikes is thus one of spectacle or demonstration, calling attention to the wages and working conditions of the employees in these industries.
 Oddly, the Board overruled a second finding by the Administrative Law Judge that a policy instructing employees to report unknown persons seen loitering the parking lot also violated Section 7 of the Act. The Board noted it would not conclude that a reasonable employee would read a rule to violate Section 7 simply because the rule could be interpreted that way.