Walmart is next battleground for labor, business

Drop in manufacturing and poor earnings from bellwether companies such as WalMart send investors fleeing, plus, home foreclosures on track for 6-year low, feds sweeten student loan program and more financial news

(MoneyWatch) Walmart (WMT) is again becoming the focus of an extended campaign to push for higher pay and expanded union presence. A group calling itself OUR Walmart that organized strikes last Black Friday, one of the busiest shopping days of the year, emailed CBS MoneyWatch to say that it would announce another strike to happen this Thursday.

Trying to make a living, even at the average full-time $12.83 per hour wage Walmart claims it pays in the US isn't easy. Factor in that the company won't say what the overall average wage is nor how many of its employees can't get fulltime work, and the real average likely drops even lower. Low-paying part-time work has become a national trend and problem.

However, the recent string of labor actions aren't just the squaring off of discontented workers and economically-constrained businesses. Walmart and the fast food industry have also become battlegrounds between big labor and big business. Each side is doing its best to appear organically grown, but in reality sometimes extending to so-called run astroturfing: the use of contrived organizations inaccurately portrayed as grass roots efforts.

Both union and corporate sides use language implying that their activities are part of an informal coalition of naturally interested parties. For example, when asked if the Walmart actions were really union-organized events, the PR firm that sent the information called the group planning the strikes "Making Change at Walmart" and said that it was "a coalition of labor unions, community groups and Walmart workers."

The PR group, Berlin Rosen, is the one that promoted the fast food strikes. The firm's site lists a number of union clients, including SEIU and the United Food & Commercial Workers, both of which have been involved in the labor actions this spring and summer. The firm's principals "began their careers as [community] organizers. And all of the communications stress that workers are demanding the right to more easily unionize, in addition to higher pay. Unions have for years seen declining enrollments, which also means less power and lower revenues for the organizations.

A grass roots group rarely has the money and marketing organization to retain and effectively use a PR firm for such a campaign, which can easily run tens of thousands of dollars a month. But someone structures the messaging to make it sound as though this is a more or less spontaneous development completely driven by employees. Earlier this year, when Berlin Rosen was asked exactly which client was paying for the PR outreach in the fast-food fight, the answer was the coalitions in the eight cities that called for the strike. Not that other groups weren't supportive -- there were lists of involved organizations in each city. But it seems more likely that the checks came from the union clients. And would the fast food workers really have put such emphasis on having an easier time unionizing?

That spin pales in comparison to the astroturf games corporate sponsors play. An organization calling itself ROC Exposed contacted CBS Moneywatch to complain that the fast-food worker protests were portrayed as spontaneous when in fact they were "top-down, carefully-choreographed." Who is ROC Exposed? The group described itself as "supported by a coalition of restaurant workers, employers and citizens," but the Philadelphia Inquirer reported that the non-profit appeared to be connected to Berman and Co., a PR firm that has been tied to a number of front groups for corporate interests that oppose wage increases and unionization. During a previous story, CBS MoneyWatch had an interaction another Berman group: the Center for Union Facts. A representative kept insisting that it was not run by a PR firm, even though at times he sent emails using his Berman Co. address.

Issues of wages and economic disparities are important and need to be discussed. However, much of the conversation is being directed by the actions and PR campaigns of large opponents with their own interests and resources far beyond what average people have available.

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    Erik Sherman is a widely published writer and editor who also does select ghosting and corporate work. The views expressed in this column belong to Sherman and do not represent the views of CBS Interactive. Follow him on Twitter at @ErikSherman or on Facebook.

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