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Labor board moving fast on Wal-Mart complaint

story by Jim Efstathiou Jr.
Bloomberg News

Wal-Mart Stores Inc.’s charge of illegal picketing by workers at some of its stores is being investigated by the National Labor Relations Board under rules that call for an expedited decision.

The complaint, filed Nov. 16 against the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union, is being investigated by staff from several regions who are interviewing witnesses and reviewing company documents, Nancy Cleeland, a labor board spokeswoman, said today (Nov. 20)  in an e-mail. The board’s Division of Advice will make a final determination.

“There are many distinct factual circumstances at stores across the country to consider,” Cleeland said. “Under these circumstances, the Office of General Counsel does not expect to make a decision before Thursday on whether or not to seek an injunction to stop the activity.”

Meanwhile, OUR Walmart, one of the groups organizing the protests, said it filed its own charge with the labor board today. The group says Wal-Mart managers sought to use threats to deter workers from participating in the demonstrations.

Wal-Mart has accused the UFCW of violating federal labor laws by inappropriately picketing, demonstrating, trespassing on company property and intimidating customers and employees – or making threats to do those things.

The union has tried to force Wal-Mart to the bargaining table even though it doesn’t officially represent employees, according to Wal-Mart’s filing. The Bentonville, Arkansas-based retailer asked the board for an investigation and immediate injunction.

If the board rules in Wal-Mart’s favor, it would seek an injunction in district court to stop the protests. The agency and U.S. courts are closed Nov. 22 for the Thanksgiving holiday, meaning action could be delayed until at least Nov. 23.

“By law, under the National Labor Relations Act, this kind of charge has to take priority over every other thing we have going on,” Cleeland said yesterday in an interview. “We are putting extra resources into this and trying to come to a decision as quickly as possible.”

The union, representing more than 1.3 million workers in grocery and retail stores and the meatpacking industry, said Wal-Mart workers began walking off the job Nov. 14 at stores and warehouses in California. The strikes are the first of what the group said are 1,000 protests planned in Chicago, Dallas, Miami, Oklahoma, Louisiana, Milwaukee, Los Angeles, Minnesota and Washington ahead of “Black Friday” on Nov. 23, the day after the U.S. Thanksgiving holiday and traditionally a major shopping day.

“We are pleased the NLRB has made this a top priority,” Wal-Mart spokesman Randy Hargrove said in an e-mail yesterday. “Our focus remains on Black Friday and providing our customers with a great experience, great items and unbelievable prices.”

Jill Cashen, a UFCW spokeswoman, said the union welcomes the expedited consideration by the labor board.

“We feel confident that the board will deny Wal-Mart’s request to silence the UFCW and our allies,” she said.

Labor board staff have taken affidavits from witnesses, reviewed documents provided by Wal-Mart and obtained a response and evidence from the union.

“The legal issues – including questions about what constitutes picketing and whether the activity was aimed at gaining recognition for the union – are complex,” Cleeland said.

Workers are protesting what the union said was Wal-Mart’s manipulation of hours and benefits, efforts to keep people from working full time and discrimination against women and minorities.

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OUR Walmart, which calls itself an organization of Wal-Mart employees, said in an e-mailed statement today that it had filed a complaint against the company.

“I want to send a clear message to Walmart: we will not be silenced,” Mary Pat Tifft, an OUR Walmart member and 24-year Wal-Mart associate from Kenosha, Wisc., said in the statement.

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