LABOR PANEL FINDS ILLEGAL PUNISHMENTS AT WAL-MART

Staff Writer
Columbus CEO

c.2013 New York Times News Service

Wal-Mart illegally disciplined and fired employees over strikes and protests, according to findings released by the National Labor Relations Board in a statement Monday.

In addition, the board’s general counsel said an inquiry conducted by the counsel’s office found evidence that a company spokesman, appearing on national television, had unlawfully threatened employees who were considering taking part in the protests.

Wal-Mart denied the accusations, labeling as “procedural” the board counsel’s decision to authorize the filing of a complaint asserting violations of workers’ rights against the company. No complaint was filed Monday, as the board counsel’s office said it would give the parties involved a chance to reach a settlement.

The board’s general counsel had investigated some accusations made against Wal-Mart, stemming from activities planned last year for Black Friday.

The scope of the accusations was wide, spanning activities in more than a dozen states, and according to the United Food and Commercial Workers union, it covered actions taken against about 100 Wal-Mart employees.

“It’s a major case in terms of the number of stores,” said James J. Brudney, a professor at Fordham University Law School. “And it has a national scope in terms of unlawful threats and terminations.”

Last year, a group called Our Wal-Mart, a union-backed group, organized protests at 1,000 Wal-Mart stores in 46 states, according to a spokeswoman for the organization. Thousands of people participated, although the company asserted that many were not employees but labor allies and supporters, forming a demonstration against retaliation of Wal-Mart workers and in support of higher wages. In advance of that day of heavy sales discounts and widely publicized protests, David Tovar, a Wal-Mart spokesman, said on CBS News, “If associates are scheduled to work on Black Friday, we expect them to show up and to do their job, and if they don’t, depending on the circumstances, there could be consequences.”

A news released distributed by the board counsel’s office said Tovar “threatened employees with reprisal” on two national television broadcasts. The general counsel also asserted that Wal-Mart “unlawfully threatened,” disciplined or fired employees for engaging in strikes or protests in more than a dozen states, including California, Colorado, Texas and Massachusetts. The board also said that Wal-Mart disciplined or fired employees for activities other than strikes in four states.

A union spokeswoman said that at least 43 workers were disciplined and at least 23 were fired.

Whether employees are unionized or not, federal law, under the National Labor Relations Act, protects certain activities, like protesting or organizing for better wages or working conditions.

In a statement, a Wal-Mart spokesman strongly disagreed with the general counsel’s move.

“This is just a procedural step and we will pursue our options to defend the company because we believe our actions were legal and justified,” said Kory Lundberg, the spokesman.

“It’s important to note that there has not been one decision in the last five years by the NLRB or by a court finding that Wal-Mart violated the National Labor Relations Act,” Lundberg said. “That is because we take our obligations under the Act very seriously and we train our managers accordingly.”

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In a conference call with reporters Monday about planning for another round of protests this year Black Friday, during which the labor board’s complaint was first announced, several labor activists celebrated the board’s decision, including Joseph Hansen, president of the United Food and Commercial Workers.

“In this morning’s Cleveland Plain Dealer, a Wal-Mart spokesman said the company had a very strong anti-retaliation policy,” Hansen said. “Yet today, the government confirmed it will prosecute Wal-Mart for illegally firing and disciplining workers who just exercised their rights. Quite frankly, enough is enough.”

The article in The Plain Dealer was not primarily about retaliation, but about wages. The article described a holiday food drive at an area Wal-Mart, which included a sign that said, “Please donate food items here so associates in need can enjoy Thanksgiving Dinner.” The article went viral, and activists said it showed that Wal-Mart employees were poorly paid.

Lundberg of Wal-Mart said the decision to host the drive was made at the store level to help employees in unexpected hardships, not chronically in need. He said that last year the drive benefited a woman who had stopped receiving child support payments.

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In addition to the findings that are at issue between Wal-Mart and the labor relations board, the general counsel’s office said it found no evidence of other accusations made. Among them were findings that the company did not interfere with workers’ right to strike by telling protesters to move off store property in Illinois and Texas and that stores in California and Washington did not illegally change work schedules or coerce employees in retaliation.

During this holiday season, Wal-Mart has been active in a public-relations campaign, including TV ads, featuring the treatment of its workers.

On Monday, Wal-Mart said it promoted more than 350 employees during town hall meetings in Atlanta, Dallas and Phoenix.