In The News
Piggly wiggles around federal court by threatening to close store
By Dominique Paul Noth
Editor, Milwaukee Labor Press
Posted June 13, 2012
Piggly Wiggly has announced it would rather close its Sheboygan store Sept. 1, throwing 108 workers into the street, than submit to a federal court ruling that it broke the law by cutting 19 workers from full time to part time in violation of a union contract requiring negotiation.
This is the real mustard behind the truncated announcement June 12 of the impending closing of the store at 3124 S. Business Drive in Sheboygan. You will look largely in vain for the local media to accurately tell you how Piggly Wiggly runs from justice. It is more likely to cover the sausage races at Miller Park.
The media didn’t even bother to cover the initial ruling against Piggly Wiggly nor the impending complaints around Wisconsin.
Instead the state’s largest newspaper referred vaguely to “a complaint by the United Food and Commercial Workers” against the company, though that complaint had blown up in May -- a 60 page documentation decision by an administrative law judge and a full Eastern District Court of Wisconsin federal court order for Piggly Wiggly to make the workers whole and refrain from any further such action.
The failure of most local media to report this is something of a mystery, particularly in a state recently roiled by the entire issue of worker rights and union representation. Perhaps it is unfair to suggest that our local media has an opinionated thumb on the scale. More likely its short-handedness has made it sloppy on issues of basic worker rights it long ago stopped covering as a beat.
The media certainly ignored a landmark federal ruling – a striking decision, the first such action in a dozen years affirming collective bargaining, workers’ rights to organize and a chosen union’s priority to have its contract heeded.
The complaint supported by the National Labor Relations Board was initiated by the United Food and Commercial Workers and its legal experts. It is clearly a total union victory and a wining first round against Piggly Wiggly’s treatment of unionized workers. It goes a long way to explain the aggressive announcement June 12 to close the Sheboygan store rather than obey.
The company’s sudden action was led by a notorious union busting law firm Jackson Lewis, which just opened an office in Milwaukee (perhaps anticipating or helping further the move toward “right to work for less” legislation). The company first deceived the UFCW by holding a mutual meeting June 11 and then used these lawyers the next day to “continue its unlawful behavior” -- in the words of UFCW Atty. Mark Sweet – to send a letter to the state, the union and all 108 workers announcing the intention to close the store.
How the court will respond to this defiance remains to be seen. Federal Judge C. N. Clevert had just ordered the store to restore full work status and health care rights to employees whose hours were reduced to part time without bargaining with their union -- and to refrain from such unilateral decisions in the future. (Too bad he didn’t say anything about keeping the store open.)
By implication, the order for restraint would apply everywhere, including any outlet of Piggly Wiggly Midwest, which operates 102 stores (maybe soon minus one) in Wisconsin and northern Illinois. It is doubtful that the Wiggly Piggly will shut all its stores just to escape future court rulings but it is already facing unfair labor practice charges in Menasha, Racine, and Kenosha, brought by the UFCW. The cases will be prosecuted before an administrative law judge by an appointed NLRB attorney in Milwaukee beginning July 23, something else the establishment media has failed to report. Region 30, the Milwaukee office of the NLRB, issued the complaint regarding Piggly Wiggly’s overall bad faith bargaining in those locations.
Rather than boasting about its vindication, UFCW President John Eiden noted: “It’s sad that it had to come to this, where the employer can’t sit down and bargain in good faith with the union.”
The judge in the original case also ordered the supermarket to immediately offer full reinstatement to four employees who resigned when told their hours were being reduced. The move to part-time status also resulted in the loss of health insurance. The company’s new threat to close the store is regarded by some as a tactic to force the UFCW to accommodate but it clearly risks legal wrath from many quarters.
As the judge recounted in the decision, the company later justified its actions as a response to competition. Piggly Wiggly had been told a “non-union” supermarket was opening in the neighborhood. Rather than explore competitive ideas, or talk to the union about the best ways forward, or look to promote the quality, depth and experience of its own workforce, management simply went after the workers to cut costs by telling them they would now work part time rather than full though it was their family livelihood being placed in jeopardy.
Then the company in bulletin board letters defending its behavior berated the union for not supporting its efforts or helping the workers cope with less pay. Such open hostility to the union was cited by the judge in his decision – and clearly underlies the company threat to close the store rather than face federal court consequences for undermining the union’s credibility and ignoring “a strong public interest in the integrity of the collective bargaining process."
Announcing closing the store rather than submit was a reminder of the legal maneuvers that many corporations now play nationally under expensive legal advice to avoid the consequences of their behavior and thwart the operation of the law. In some ways it is an unsurprising escape from consequence given the political environment, and it is certainly made easier by the media failure to scrutinize and explain what is happening.
For instance, while the May decision against Piggly Wiggly was news in national legal and information circles, it went unreported in Wisconsin by establishment media, except for a good story in the Sheboygan Press May 23. Yet there were constant attempts to put the landmark ruling in front of reporters because Wisconsin events made it an even bigger story than usual.
Clevert’s decision came down on the eve of a recall election where one big opposition message was not getting through because of all the ad cash on the GOP side -- that much of the right-wing money agenda was to attack the very worker rights the federal court had just upheld. These were private sector workers, covered by the NLRB while public workers in Wisconsin are covered by state laws, which allowed Gov. Scott Walker to not just force higher pensions and health payments but to eviscerate basic bargaining rights – something he never campaigned on.
Yet the news was now full of a video of Walker with a billionaire that exposed his Act 10 as merely a first step to “divide and conquer,” a clear opening to expand his efforts to private sector unions, despite continuous denials on the campaign trial that he would do any such thing.
Corporations were smart enough to read his true motives – as were most private sector unions. Sure enough, his attitude toward public workers has now radiated out into the private sector, attacking negotiated rights, the treatment of basic worker rights and even defying legal rulings. More than the Piggly Wiggly case is involved, according to observers, who cite rumblings and contract traps involving machinists, steelworkers and other unions.
You’d think someone would report how a federal court reaffirmed the essential nature of the National Labor Relations Act and its purpose, particularly in the face of so much confusion about whether giving up basic worker rights is necessary in hard economic times, or simply an easy way out for companies anxious to keep profits beyond reach and workers dependent on their mercy, not on protected democratic rights.
The ruling also came in the heat of criticism from both labor and management about the NLRB and federal courts. Unions complain that that labor laws are too slow and too weak, which magnifies the importance of court decisions validating the rules unions have set up. At the same time, the maneuvers of companies to avoid consequences support the complaint that the laws are too weak.
In the opposing camp, the US Chamber of Commerce and other business organizations argue that the rules need to be gutted further, suggesting in effect that their money and judicial influence ought to allow them to gouge deeper holes.
In May on a national level, though both sides want to see the NLRB rules work better, the corporations again moved to block basic progress in quicker resolution of disputes. They used a technicality about the lack of a quorum in the early days of the Obama administration to delay some long-needed speed in the NLRB process.
But along comes the other side of the seesaw. Their overreach is behind the resignation of Terence Flynn, a Republican who joined the NLRB in January in a recess appointment by President Obama (required by law to balance the board between Democrats and Republicans).
Flynn submitted his resignation in wake of media reports that he had leaked sensitive information to Mitt Romney’s campaign, a blatant indication that his political leanings had influenced his public duty. The accusation was hardly a stretch, since Inspector General David Berry found that Flynn had improperly provided information and named as recipient one former NLRB official who had taken up a position for Romney as labor affairs adviser.
Yet rather than help Obama find another member of the GOP to fill the board in the aftermath of Flynn’s hasty retreat, the Republican Party now seems determined to oppose any choice the president makes. One suspects they’d turn down David Koch, because a fully functioning agency is not seen as in their interest. They are in a full-throated campaign to paint Obama’s NLRB as having a pro-union tilt – ironic since unions complain it is too cautious and circumspect in addressing corporate overreach.
Such are the political games surrounding the NLRB. No wonder Piggly Wiggly isn’t accepting the ruling but threatening to close the store rather than obey. It assumes the public won’t object, or that the media will not bother to tell them.