NEW YORK — Federal labor officials said Tuesday they don't expect to decide before Thursday on whether to seek an injunction on behalf of Wal-Mart Stores Inc. to stop a union-backed group from encouraging worker walk-outs that are expected to culminate Friday. That's the traditional start of the holiday shopping season.
The world's largest retailer, based in Bentonville, Ark., on Friday filed an unfair labor practice charge with the National Labor Relations Board against the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union. It said the demonstrations organized by union-backed OUR Walmart threaten to disrupt its business and intimidate customers and other store workers.
Meanwhile, OUR Walmart filed its own charge on Tuesday with the labor board. It cited attempts by Wal-Mart to deter workers from participating in what the group believes to be legally protected walkouts.
Nancy Cleeland, a spokeswoman at the NLRB, said Monday that the board aimed to move quickly to assess the merit of Wal-Mart's complaint since it involved charges of illegal picketing. If the labor board decides in Wal-Mart's favor, the matter still must go to district court.
"The legal issues – including questions about what constitutes picketing and whether the activity was aimed at gaining recognition for the union – are complex," said Cleeland in a statement. She said that the agency had staff members at Wal-Mart headquarters on Monday to take affidavits. It's also in touch with the UFCW.
"We appreciate the urgency demonstrated by the NLRB in undertaking its review," said Dan Fogleman, a Wal-Mart spokesman in a statement. "We understand that the multi-state, multi-faceted nature of the union's conduct and the board's desire to perform a thorough review of the facts means that a decision will take a bit more time."
Union officials say that the walk-outs and demonstrations are to protest what it believes are Wal-Mart's retaliation tactics against workers who have been publicly speaking out about working conditions and wages. The tactics allegedly include scheduling changes and reduction in workers' hours. OUR Walmart argues that because the planned walkouts are in protest of what it believes are unfair labor practices, workers are legally protected under federal labor law.
Wal-Mart faced a worker walk-out in October ahead of its annual investor meeting that expanded to more than a dozen states and involved about 90 workers. Wal-Mart workers again walked off their jobs last week in Dallas, Oakland, Calif., and Seattle. On Monday and Tuesday, other Wal-Mart workers walked off their jobs as well, according to union officials. Union officials couldn't give a number of how many have walked out, but Fogleman said so far it has just involved a handful of stores and employees.
Union officials promise the demonstrations will culminate on Black Friday with demonstrations or walkouts at hundreds of stores across the country.
Wal-Mart's U.S. division employs about 1.3 million workers.
"We respect all of our associates and respect their right to share their concerns," said Wal-Mart spokesman Dave Tovar. "We are always willing to hear those concerns. There has not been any retaliation against our workers who are simply expressing their views, nor will there be."
Tovar said Wal-Mart has a system of "coachings" and disciplinary actions similar to any other large company. Those are implemented when employees "purposefully violate lawful company policies at the store or create an unsafe environment for other workers or shoppers," he added.