Wal-Mart poised to take on authorities over labor disputes

The National Labor Relations Board may seek legal action against Wal-Mart if it doesn't settle a series of complaints

Demonstrators outside a Wal-Mart store in Hyattsville, Md., in September.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) "found merit" in a number of labor-rights complaints against Wal-Mart brought by workers at stores across the country, an NLRB spokesman told Al Jazeera on Monday.

The NLRB's findings came amid labor disputes involving the world's largest retailer and before the traditional Black Friday kick-off to this year's holiday shopping season.

NLRB spokesman Gregory King told Al Jazeera that the board, which is charged with protecting employee rights, "found merit in some of the charges that have been brought to us but not in others."

The NLRB said it found that Wal-Mart unlawfully threatened employees with retaliation — including termination and surveillance — for participating in demonstrations at stores in California, Colorado, Florida, Illinois, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, North Carolina, Ohio, Texas and Washington.

In California, Florida, Missouri and Texas, employees faced pressure, discipline or termination "in anticipation of or in response to employees' other protected concerted activities," an NLRB statement said.

The NLRB also said it found Wal-Mart stores in Illinois and Texas did not interfere with employees' right to strike by ordering them off Wal-Mart property. And counter to employee accusations, the board said that California and Washington stores "did not unlawfully change work schedules, disparately apply their policies or otherwise coerce employees in retaliation for their exercise of statutory rights."

Wal-Mart faces legal action if it cannot settle with employees in cases in which the NLRB's investigation sided with the employees, King said.

He said the board "has authorized complaints that will be issued if a settlement (between Wal-Mart and employees) can't be reached within the next week or so."

"My understanding is that Wal-Mart's counsel has been informed of the (NLRB's) decision. They asked for an opportunity to speak to their client," King said. "We are anticipating that certainly within a week or two, there will be settlement discussions or we will file a complaint."  

If Wal-Mart does not settle in the next two weeks, it faces not only legal action by the NLRB but also financial ramifications related to wrongful terminations.

Wal-Mart appeared poised to take on the NLRB.

"We're going to defend our company. We believe our actions did not violate the law," Wal-Mart spokeswoman Brooke Buchanan told Al Jazeera. "This is just a procedural step, and we will continue to pursue our options to defend the company because we believe our actions were legal and justified."

"The fact is we provide good jobs and unparalleled opportunities for our associates," she said, using the company's term for Wal-Mart staff.

Katherine Stone, a UCLA law professor specializing in labor and employment law, explained that while the NLRB cannot independently prosecute Wal-Mart, failing to settle may cost the retail giant in the long term.

"The NLRB is not a prosecutor in the criminal law. It maintains an adjudicatory section which processes what are called unfair labor practice charges," she said, explaining that Wal-Mart "could be subjected to an order to put people back to work and give back pay or face legal action."

"It's in Wal-Mart's best interest to resolve this so they don't have to pay too much back pay," Stone said.

Other disputes

Wal-Mart faced a number of other labor-rights allegations and other developments Monday.

Berlin Rosen, a public-relations company representing several labor-rights and social-justice organizations, announced Monday that a number of organizations "representing tens of millions of Americans" would join in a protest to address labor-rights grievances at Wal-Marts on Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving, which is marked by big sales.

Berlin Rosen estimates that more than 30,000 workers and supporters participated in last year's Black Friday Wal-Mart demonstrations.

Wal-Mart did not respond directly to the Berlin Rosen announcement and instead emphasized the economic importance of the shopping season.

"This is the busiest time of the year for us, and we're focused on serving our customers and helping them have a great holiday," Buchanan said.

Also on Monday, local media outlet The Cleveland Plain Dealer drew national attention when it reported that one of the city's Wal-Marts was asking employees to help their co-workers celebrate Thanksgiving with food donations.

"Is Wal-Mart's request of associates to help provide Thanksgiving dinner for co-workers proof of low wages?" reads the headline of the article.

Buchanan explained the request for donations was part of a long-running practice "for our associates to help each other out when something terrible happens," including natural disasters and family tragedies.

"We all go through stuff that's bad, right? This is a way for us to give back," she said. "It is unfortunate that people just made assumptions that were completely inaccurate."

In addressing another problem for the retail giant's reputation on labor rights, Wal-Mart told Al Jazeera that 10 of 75 factories in Bangladesh did not pass safety inspections the company had commissioned but that the situation has improved.

The superstore posted the results for 75 of 200 factories' safety standards, from an inspection started in May. Of the 10 factories that did not pass, Wal-Mart spokesman Kevin Gardner said, eight have since improved working standards. One factory needs to be reconstructed, and another failed to pass because of what Gardner called "labor unrest."

"We believe transparency is vital to improve worker safety in Bangladesh," he told Al Jazeera.

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