Walmart’s 1.3 million workers won a big victory Monday when the National Labor Relations Board ruled that the retail giant had broken the law by firing and harassing employees who spoke out—and in some cases went on strike—to protest the company’s poverty pay and abusive labor practices.
The federal agency will prosecute Walmart’s illegal firings and disciplinary actions involving more than 117 workers, including those who went on strike last June as part of a growing movement of company employees. The ruling is likely to accelerate the burgeoning protest movement among Walmart employees, upset with low pay, stingy benefits, arbitrary work schedules and part-time jobs.
Over the past year, protests against the world’s largest private employer have escalated, led by OUR Walmart, a nationwide network of Walmart workers. Last fall, the group announced that it would hold rallies outside Walmart stores in dozens of cities on the day after Thanksgiving—the busiest shopping day of the year, typically called Black Friday. In response, Walmart executives threatened disciplinary action against workers who participated in rallies and strikes, even though they are perfectly legal. Speaking on national television, Walmart spokesperson David Tovar threatened workers, saying that “there could be consequences” for employees who did not come to work for scheduled shifts on Black Friday. Despite the threats, several hundred Walmart workers joined tens of thousands of supporters at the Black Friday protests around the country.
In June, over 100 striking Walmart workers, along with allies from labor, community and faith-based groups, trekked to Walmart’s annual shareholder meeting in Bentonville, Arkansas, the company headquarters, to tell shareholders about the company’s abusive practices. When these workers returned to work, Walmart—hoping to knock the wind out of the sails of the growing movement—systematically fired at least twenty-three workers and disciplined another forty-three employees despite their legally recognized, protected absences.
In its statement, the NLRB explained: “During two national television news broadcasts and in statements to employees at Walmart stores in California and Texas, Walmart unlawfully threatened employees with reprisal if they engaged in strikes and protests on November 22, 2012.” It also ruled that “Walmart stores in California, Colorado, Florida, Illinois, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, North Carolina, Ohio, Texas and Washington unlawfully threatened, disciplined, and/or terminated employees for having engaged in legally protected strikes and protests.”
Under the NLRB ruling, Walmart could be required to reinstate the workers and award them back pay. The board could also require Walmart to inform and educate all employees of their legally protected rights. (Federal labor law doesn’t allow the NLRB to impose fines on companies that violate workers’ rights).
This is not the first time that the NLRB has sanctioned Walmart for labor violations. In California, the Board recently decided to prosecute Walmart for eleven violations of federal labor law for threats that managers made around Black Friday last year. In Kentucky, Walmart reached a settlement with Aaron Lawson, whom the company fired after he distributed flyers and spoke out against the company’s attempts to silence those who called for better wages and consistent hours. As part of the settlement, Walmart agreed to rehire Lawson and provide full back wages for the time that he was out of work.