Analysis: Wal-Mart case seen a key test in struggle over labor rights

Thu Jan 16, 2014 10:37pm EST
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By Carlyn Kolker and Kevin Drawbaugh

NEW YORK/WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A challenge by the U.S. National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) to Wal-Mart Stores Inc's treatment of striking workers is likely to become a critical symbol of labor unions' attempts to organize the many non-union workplaces in the United States in the face of stiff resistance from management.

The wider implications of the showdown for Wal-Mart and other American employers that don't recognize unions are likely to be much more important than any costs the giant retailer may face if it loses the case, labor experts said.

The NLRB, which oversees union elections and polices unfair labor practices, issued a complaint on Wednesday accusing Wal-Mart of violating labor law by firing or disciplining workers for strikes over wages last year in 14 states.

The NLRB's complaint breaks new ground for the agency, which is bringing more cases involving non-union workers as it asserts its role in an increasingly non-union economy. Wal-Mart is the largest employer to face such a complaint in years.

"This is part of a drive by the NLRB to further police employees' labor rights in the non-unionized workforce," said Paul Secunda, a professor of labor law at Marquette University.

"If the NLRB can go after Wal-Mart and be successful, that sends a shot across the bow to all employers across the line - to employers that are similar in size, to smaller employers - that they are under the jurisdiction of the NLRB," he said.

In addition, the Wal-Mart case weaves together complaints on behalf of 19 fired workers, as opposed to handling one complaint at a time. That makes it "precedent-setting," said Sarita Gupta of Jobs With Justice, a workers' rights group.

If a settlement is not reached, the agency's case is likely to drag on for two to three years as it winds its way through agency proceedings and then up to a U.S. court of appeals.   Continued...

Walmart workers and supporters protest low wages outside one of the company's stores in Miami Gardens, Florida September 5, 2013. REUTERS/Joe Skipper