The outcome of government charges that Walmart mistreated striking workers could have broad implications for labor rights, experts say.

Walmart, National Labor Relations Board, NLRB, United Food and Commercial Workers union, Making Change, Our Walmart, Black Friday, Democratic President Barack Obama, UFCW, Michael Gold

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Walmart challenged by NLRB

January 27th, 2014

BENTONVILLE, Ark. – The outcome of government charges that Walmart mistreated striking workers could have broad implications for labor rights, experts say.

The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) this month accused Walmart of violating labor law by firing or disciplining workers for wage protests at 34 stores in 14 states since November 2012.

The complaint marked a new approach for the agency, which is filing more actions involving nonunion workers.

Walmart is the biggest company to face such an accusation in years.

The complaint was welcomed by the United Food and Commercial Workers union, which backs Making Change at Walmart and Our Walmart, two employee groups that participated in the protests.

The charges date to November 17, 2012, when managers started telling workers that they would be disciplined if they walked out ahead of Black Friday.

Sixty-three Walmart supervisors and one corporate officer are named in the complaint. Nearly 70 workers were fired or disciplined, according to a statement from the union.

Walmart looks forward to answering the charges, a company spokeswoman said.

"We believe that it’s unacceptable that someone can come and go from a scheduled shift as part of a union-orchestrated PR campaign without being held accountable," the spokeswoman said in an interview, according to Bloomberg.

"We at Walmart now have the opportunity to share the facts in these cases with an administrative law judge."

If a settlement is not reached, the case is likely to stretch out for years as it winds its way through the agency up to an appeals court.

The case is seen as a possible test of workers’ rights in the increasingly nonunion economy. Walmart and organized labor are old foes, with the retailer intent on maintaining its nonunion workforce, while unions try to gain ground among Walmart’s 1.3 million U.S. employees.

While the NLRB has reasserted its prominence under Democratic President Barack Obama, it has no power to seek big fines against Walmart.

According to the UFCW, Walmart could be required to rehire workers, pay back wages as well as reverse disciplinary actions.

"A victory for the board and the union could have symbolic importance for unionizing drives across the country," Michael Gold, a professor of labor law at Cornell University, told Reuters.

But if Walmart wins, "they are really going to trumpet it," he said. "They are going to tell their workers, with good cause, ‘we did not break the law. The government persecuted us for nothing."