In April 2011, the Wisconsin Grocers Association issued an alert to its members warning that protests against Republican Gov. Scott Walker were about to escalate. Store owners were told activists were planning a May 1 campaign to slap stickers on several products to express anti-Walker sentiments.
An April 27 Journal Sentinel story about the association’s warning was picked up by other media outlets, including some that took it another step -- saying unions were behind the sticker threat. A day later, Phil Neuenfeldt, president of the Wisconsin AFL-CIO responded with a statement that said in part:
"We have no knowledge beyond un-evidenced assertions made to the media by the Wisconsin Grocers Association of any such campaign, but let's be crystal clear -- there are not, nor have there ever been, any boycotts encouraged by our organizations."
The second part of that statement caught our attention.
Following the collective bargaining law, haven’t unions been turning up the heat on businesses -- including M&I Bank and Kwik Trip -- where executives or political action committees supported Walker or GOP groups?
Let’s stop and look at the dictionary definition of boycott:
"To abstain from or act together in abstaining from using, buying or dealing with as an expression of protest or disfavor or as a means of coercion," says The Free Dictionary. Others such as Merriam-Webster.com and ethicalconsumer.org have similar definitions.
We asked Neuenfeldt about his statement, in light of the anti-Walker activities that have been in the news.
His answer: Those aren’t official AFL-CIO boycotts.
In fact, there have been very few such boycotts. The reason, Neuenfeldt said, is simple: Such actions by the umbrella labor group are illegal under federal law.
"We don’t boycott," he said. "We can’t."
That seems pretty cut and dried. But is it really?
Indeed, the state AFL-CIO is an umbrella group. But it includes about 1,000 affiliated local unions, which represent 250,000 members in the state. And Neuenfeldt’s statement was "there are not, nor have there ever been, any boycotts encouraged by our organizations."
That sure seems to include member unions, who under law are allowed to participate in boycotts. What’s more, the statement didn’t apply only to organizing boycotts, but "encouraging" them. So, let’s turn to the record.
For instance, there is a "Boycott Scott Walker Contributors" page on Facebook, which has more than 23,000 people and businesses -- including some unions representing firefighters, police officers and teachers -- listed as "liking" the page.
Neuenfeldt said those are individual actions and not coordinated by the umbrella labor group.
Meanwhile, members of the Wisconsin State Employees Union, AFSCME Council 24, have been urging businesses to put signs in their windows supporting workers’ rights.
A letter sent to the businesses said in part: "Failure to do so will leave us no choice but (to) do a public boycott of your business." State AFSCME leaders later dismissed that effort as the actions of a "rogue" union local.
What about the actions of the state AFL-CIO itself?
At a May 5 news conference outside an M&I Bank branch on Milwaukee’s west side, the group said it withdrew $105,000 from the bank and closed its account as part of what it called the "Move Your Money" campaign.
The group withdrew its money to protest M&I executives’ contributions to Walker and to underscore the threat to Wisconsin jobs that could come from the upcoming sale of M&I to the Bank of Montreal. M&I is listed among dozens of businesses on the "Boycott Scott Walker Contributors" page on Facebook.
Sounds like the state AFL-CIO wants you to take your business elsewhere. Isn’t that a boycott?
University of Wisconsin-Madison history professor William Paul Jones, an expert on organized labor, disagrees. He said "technically, a boycott is an organized action," while the withdrawal of money from M&I by the state AFL-CIO is an individual action.
Under federal law, he said, the existence of coercion is a key threshold for a protest or action to be considered a boycott.
So the state AFL-CIO, for instance, can say: We’re doing this, and we hope you follow suit. They run afoul of federal law if they set up picket lines and try to prevent customers from entering and so forth.
Perhaps the most famous boycott was that staged against grape growers from 1965-70, a nationwide effort that led to the creation of the United Farm Workers.
That boycott was not deemed illegal and resulted in the signing of a contract with the farm workers. Federal law expressly bans "secondary" boycotts -- such as actions against a parts supplier tied to a strike against an automaker.
Indeed in the end, there was no mass stickering, which was what prompted the original warning from the grocers association and the Neuenfeldt response.
Grocers association CEO Brandon Scholz said he received word from one store up north where a customer was asked to leave because he was believed to have stickers with him.
Scholz said media attention might have dissuaded protesters.
But as we have noted, Neuenfeldt’s statement was much broader than about the stickering threat. And making it more sweeping made it more problematic.
Neuenfeldt said "there are not, nor have there ever been, any boycotts encouraged by our organizations." He notes the statewide group is barred under federal law from engaging in boycotts.
But his statement also applied to the organizations within the state AFL-CIO and not only to organizing boycotts, but also encouraging them. And unions clearly have been taking actions to support the anti-Walker boycott movement. Indeed, the state AFL-CIO called a news conference to highlight to the public it was taking a step that some of its member groups were withdrawing money from M&I Bank.
What’s more, the average person does not view the issue from the legal perspective, but the practical result. They see union members protesting Walker and listing a gas station chain, bratwurst maker and many other businesses on a boycott Facebook page.
We rate Neuenfeldt’s statement Barely True.
Editor's note: This statement was rated Barely True when it was published. On July 27, 2011, we changed the name for the rating to Mostly False.