Are unions aiming for Wal-Mart to prop up pensions?

In the aftermath of Black Friday, there's been an extra focus on mega-popular and always-controversial mega-retailer Wal-Mart - which some columnists suggest may be motivated by more than just social equality for workers.

According to Diana Fruchtgott-Roth, a columnist with the right-leaning Washington Examiner, the series of protest "strikes" organized by the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union outside of Wal-Mart stores last week may have more to do with the union's failing pension finances and less to do with the fate of Wal-Mart's chronically underpaid and largely part-time employees.

The columnist, a former chief economist at the U.S. Department of Labor and senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research, opines that the union's substantially underfunded pensions could be fundamentally inflated by the dues of the approximately 1.4 million Wal-Mart employees it seeks to unionize - roughly doubling the UFCW's existing ranks.

It's a fight that's been going on for years, but this season's slightly renewed sales season has created a new opportunity to push for labor representation at the retailer.

Portions of the UFCW's pension plans are indeed in trouble, with its Tri-State Pension Plan for Delaware, New Jersey and Pennsylvania workers funded at just 55 percent.

Fruchtgott-Roth argues that it's an unfair situation, as UFCW officers and staff enjoy a 401(k) and a profit-sharing plan run by Fidelity Investments, as well as a healthy annuity plan.

As a larger issue, the presence and power of unions in America continues to slip, with overall American union membership dropping from 24 percent of the workforce in 1973 to just 12 percent in 2011. Estimates for private-sector union membership suggest the number is as little as 6.6 percent 

In contrast, others have argued that the union-backed protests aim to correct the ongoing problems of working conditions at the Wal-Mart chain and the company's continued reliance on cheap imported products.


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