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Wal-Mart steels itself for Black Friday labor showdown

If you're going to a Walmart on Black Friday to score a cheap TV, the drama unfolding in the parking lot could be bigger than what you’ll eventually watch on the screen.

The nation’s largest retailer and a consortium of workers’ rights groups have traded jabs after Wal-Mart responded to threats of Black Friday walkouts and protests at 1,000 stores across the country by Organization United for Respect at Walmart (OUR Walmart). 

Wal-Mart filed an unfair labor practice suit against the United Food and Commercial Workers union with the National Labor Relations Board last week asking the NLRB to stop the protests, which the retailer claims are an attempt to disrupt its business. OUR Walmart claims the union doesn't control it, however, even though the two organizations have ties.

But Black Friday shoppers can probably expect labor actions to be a minor annoyance, at most. While 1,000 protest events sounds like a lot, Wal-Mart has 4,500 stores in the U.S. In an email to NBC News, company spokesman David Tovar characterized participants as “a handful of associates, at a handful of stores scattered across the country.”

Rashad Robinson, executive director of advocacy group ColorOfChange, which is working with OUR Walmart, said people shopping at those 1,000 stores would notice a difference. “I think we’re going to see a strong turnout... I expect the lines to be longer, I expect things to be much slower,” Robinson said.

UFCW spokeswoman Moira Bulloch called the organized actions “very much unprecedented” and said shoppers at some stores could see workers walking out or protesting.

The response from the investor community was more of a shrug. “I think it’ll be a non-event,” said Budd Bugatch, analyst with Raymond James & Associates. “I don’t see this as something we in the investment community will ever make a big deal of.”

Rob Wilson, analyst at Tiburon Research Group, said he thinks the work actions are being driven more by an effort to unionize than to improve working conditions, which is similar to what Wal-Mart alleges in its NLRB suit.

Bulloch disputes this, as does Mary Pat Tifft, a leader with OUR Walmart. "The UFCW has no ownership, equity or other controlling interest in OUR Walmart,” she said via email.

Although the impending courtroom clash won’t take place until well after Black Friday, one labor expert said the retailer’s response shows that it’s taking the threat of a Black Friday showdown seriously.

“The fact that Wal-Mart is responding to this shows that they share the perception that this is not good for them,” said Paul Osterman, professor of human resources and management at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and author of "Good Jobs America: Making Work Better for Everyone."

Osterman agreed that there’s unlikely to be any damage to Wal-Mart’s earnings, even if walkouts and protests go as activists plan. “It’s not just a question of how today’s shopper feels,” he said. “People will still shop there.”

“The real impact is what it adds up to is Wal-Mart’s public perception and how that reverberates in a variety of ways,” he said. Labor regulators could scrutinize allegations of misdeeds more carefully, and local politicians could make it difficult for the retailer to open new stores in their jurisdictions, especially in urban areas where Wal-Mart historically has not had as much penetration.

“That said, if this becomes a material issue [and] enough workers actually walk out, I think the walk out could have huge ramifications for the company and the industry in general,” Wilson said.

Although the pushback of Black Friday into Thanksgiving night has been embraced by mass-market retailers of all types, he said a worker revolt significant enough to disrupt business could give them pause. “It may force the retail sector to re-think their Black Friday/Thanksgiving openings.”