WASHINGTON (AP) -- Federal officials said Monday they are prepared to file formal complaints against Wal-Mart for allegedly violating the legal rights of protesting workers last year.
The National Labor Relations Board announced that its general counsel, Richard Griffin, found merit in charges that the retailer unlawfully threatened employees in California and Texas with reprisal if they engaged in strikes and protests ahead of Black Friday, the big shopping day after Thanksgiving.
Griffin also is ready to press charges that Wal-Mart illegally threatened, disciplined or terminated more than 100 employees in 13 states for participating in legally protected strikes and protests last November over wages and working conditions.
Formal complaints will be filed if Wal-Mart and the workers fail to reach a settlement in the next week or two, NLRB spokesman Gregory King said.
The protests last year were organized by the union-backed group OUR Walmart, which has been pushing the company for years to raise wages and benefits. The same group is preparing to launch similar actions at Wal-Mart stores across the country next week in an effort to highlight thousands of store employees who make "poverty wages" of less than $25,000 a year.
Wal-Mart spokeswoman Brooke Buchanan said the company disagreed with the labor board and planned to defend itself.
"We believe this is just a procedural step and we will pursue our options to defend the company because we believe our actions were legal and justified," Buchanan said. "The fact is we provide good jobs and unparalleled opportunities for our associates."
If complaints are filed, the cases would go before an administrative law judge. Wal-Mart could be subject to penalties and required to inform its employees about their legally protected rights. Workers could be awarded back pay, reinstatement and reversal of any disciplinary action.
Barbara Collins, a fired associate who worked at Wal-Mart in Placerville, Calif., said she was glad to hear that the board was pursuing the complaints of hers and others.
"We have the support of thousands of Americans standing with us for better jobs at Wal-Mart," she said.
The NLRB statement Monday said Griffin found no merit to other charges against Wal-Mart. He found the company did not interfere with workers' rights to strike by telling protesters in Texas and Illinois to move off store property. And he found that store officials in California and Washington did not unlawfully change work schedules or otherwise retaliate against workers who exercised their legal right to discuss wages and working conditions.
The United Food and Commercial Workers union has tried for years to organize workers at Wal-Mart, the nation's largest private employer, with about 1.3 million employees. The company has vigorously opposed unionizing efforts.
Last year, Wal-Mart filed charges with the NLRB claiming that the UFCW was illegally picketing its stores for the purpose of unionizing workers. Wal-Mart claimed that under the law, the UFCW could not picket for more than 30 days without filing formal papers to form a union.
Wal-Mart and the union ultimately settled the charges, with the UFCW saying it wasn't seeking to form a union and agreeing not to picket the company for 60 days. But the union vowed to continue to press Wal-Mart to improve overall working conditions, including wages.
More than 50 Wal-Mart workers and other protesters were arrested in Los Angeles earlier this month protesting a newly opened Wal-Mart store in Chinatown. Wal-Mart officials say the company pays competitive wages and gives workers opportunities for career growth and economic security.
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