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Feds Charge Walmart With Breaking Labor Law In Black Friday Strikes

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WASHINGTON -- After failing to reach an agreement that would avoid litigation, the federal labor board issued a complaint against Walmart on Wednesday, formally accusing the world's largest retailer of breaking labor law during Black Friday strikes by its store workers.

In the complaint, the general counsel's office of the National Labor Relations Board accused Walmart of illegally threatening or punishing workers who considered taking part in the high-profile walkouts that started in November of 2012. The agency, which is tasked with enforcing labor law covering unions and employers, generally prefers to reach a settlement before litigating such a case, and only files a complaint if the parties can't manage to come to terms through negotiations.

Workers in several states filed complaints with the board after the strikes, and the board's counsel eventually "found merit" in many of the accusations while dismissing others. The workers are backed by the United Food and Commercial Workers union and its non-union affiliate, OUR Walmart, which have coordinated the walkouts and blasted the retailer for its treatment of employees.

Walmart previously told HuffPost it disagreed with the general counsel's accusations and believed its actions "were legal and justified."

Brooke Buchanan, a Walmart spokeswoman, said Wednesday that the filing of the charge was just a procedural step and that the company looked forward to telling its side of the story.

"Walmart now has the opportunity to share the facts in these specific cases with an administrative law judge," she said. "We've been in continued conversations with the NLRB on this matter since it was announced in November, and we will continue to be."

At least one of the charges appears to have been easily avoided for Walmart. In the complaint, the board's counsel accuses Walmart of illegally threatening workers through statements made by one of its own spokespeople on television. That charge appears to refer to an interview that Walmart spokesperson David Tovar gave to CBS Evening News ahead of the strikes, saying "there could be consequences" for workers who are expected to show up for work and don't.

"We’ve never seen a complaint against Walmart of this size or scope, and we’re glad the NLRB is taking action," Sarita Gupta, executive director of the labor group Jobs With Justice, said in a statement. "Walmart’s attacks on its own employees cannot go unchecked."

One of the workers named in the complaint, Dominic Ware, praised the labor board's counsel for issuing the complaint. Ware, who worked at a Walmart store in San Leandro, Calif., took part in strikes and protests last spring; he said Walmart cited his absences during that period when they fired him in July. According to a corporate memo quoted in the complaint, Walmart management apparently did not consider the strikes to be protected under labor law. Ware -- and the board's counsel -- disagreed.

"It's just validating everything," Ware, 27, said of the complaint. "There were people who doubted the truth of what we were saying. To have it backed up by the federal government is just unbelievable."

The general counsel's charge is similar to an allegation made by a prosecutor, not a final determination by the quasi-judicial board. It's still possible Walmart and the workers can hash out an agreement before the case gets litigated and the board issues a decision.

An estimated 400 employees took part in the strikes that began on Black Friday 2012 and rolled into the following year, with workers and progressive allies protesting the chain's pay practices outside its stores. Although the participating workers comprised just a small fraction of Walmart's 1.3 million-member U.S. workforce, the scattered walkouts garnered national attention and helped fuel the fast-food strikes that have since hit dozens of U.S. cities.

According to the board, Walmart has until Jan. 28 to respond to the complaint, and no hearing has been set yet.

This post has been updated with Dominic Ware's comments.