Economy

Walmart’s 2013 Firings Of Protesting Workers Were Illegal, Judge Rules

CREDIT: AP Photo/Mel Evans

People protest against Wal-Mart on Black Friday, Nov 23, 2012, in Secaucus, N.J.

Walmart must give 16 fired associates their jobs back after a National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) administrative law judge ruled Thursday that the company illegally retaliated against the workers for participating in strikes and other organizing efforts in 2013.

The case stems from the company’s stern response to an earlier phase in the long-running campaign to organize Walmart employees. Workers then backed by the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) planned to bus into Bentonville, Arkansas, to crash the company’s 2013 shareholder meeting. Walmart’s corporate office got wind of the “Ride for Respect” plan and flew into action, monitoring activists’ social media activity with the help of Lockheed Martin to stay a step ahead of the protesters.

Walmart fired several of the roughly 100 store employees who got on the “Ride for Respect” buses. It argues that deciding to miss work to join the protest is legal grounds for letting those workers go.

Thursday’s ruling veers the opposite direction. Judges have to decide if workers who claim retaliation were participating in a legitimate and legally protected strike, or an “intermittent work stoppage” that is not enshrined in labor law. Walmart has successfully argued in the past that protests and walkouts at its stores are not legal strikes, but NLRB judge Geoffrey Carter found that the “Ride for Respect” was in a different category.

In addition to ordered the 16 fired workers reinstated, Carter ordered Walmart to give them back pay dating to the time they were fired. The judge also ordered the company to hold public meetings with staff at 29 stores to openly affirm workers’ rights to organize, and to post public notices with a similar message in 31 stores.

Walmart has said it plans to appeal Carter’s ruling. The company has been tireless in fighting to tamp down worker unrest, not just in courtrooms but in how it trains its store managers. The company may have held out long enough to avoid a full-on unionization drive — a years-long collaboration between the UFCW and Walmart workers called OUR Walmart broke down last fall, and the group by that name now says it has no intention of seeking union recognition from Walmart — but the effort has won at least cosmetic changes in how Walmart approaches its workforce.

The company has slowly moved to raise wages for its entry-level workers, giving out one modest across-the-board bump last spring and announcing another widespread wage hike earlier this week. It’s also trying to make schedules more predictable by giving workers an online interface where they can have some input on their hours. Walmart even said this week it will start allowing workers to accrue paid time off.

For a shopping empire built on squeezing labor costs as tightly as possible, the prospect of paid time off might seem revolutionary. But its unclear how deep the change in thinking goes, and Walmart’s pro-worker moves to date have been more tonal than substantive.

Almost all frontline Walmart workers will continue to earn so little that they qualify for public assistance benefits, effectively giving the retail giant a taxpayer-funded subsidy for paying too little for people to live on. And just a few months after the first round of raises, the company moved to cut worker hours at some stores amid pressure from shareholders nervous about costs.