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story.lead_photo.caption In this Oct. 5, 2007, file photo, an American flag flies in front of the Walmart Stores Inc. headquarters in Bentonville, Ark. (AP Photo/April L. Brown, File)

Walmart Inc. acted lawfully when it disciplined or fired workers who walked out for nearly a week to protest at its annual shareholders meeting in 2013, the National Labor Relations Board has ruled.

The opinion overturns a 2016 ruling against Walmart by an administrative law judge.

In a 2-1 decision Thursday, the board said the walkout by 100 to 130 employees was not a true strike but part of a series of short-term or "intermittent" strikes that are not protected by the National Labor Relations Act. The protests were organized by a group called OUR Walmart, which was then backed by the United Food and Commercial Workers union.

OUR Walmart stands for Organization United for Respect at Walmart. The group, which now goes by United for Respect at Walmart, claims the Bentonville retailer retaliates against employees who speak out about its labor practices and working conditions. Its protests included the five- to six-day walkout in early June 2013 so that workers could travel to the Walmart meeting in Fayetteville.

The labor board's ruling concerned 54 employees who took part in the so-called Ride for Respect. The board's opinion states these workers were disciplined or fired for violating Walmart's attendance policy.

As one of a series of four strikes that OUR Walmart held between October 2012 and November 2013, the opinion states, the Ride for Respect constituted an intermittent strike, defined as "a plan to strike, return to work, and strike again."

According to the document, "In the rare case where there is direct evidence of a strategy to use a series of strikes in support of the same goal, it is a straightforward matter to find the work stoppages unprotected" under the National Labor Relations Act. And while intermittent strikes are not illegal, it states, "employers do not contravene the Act by disciplining participants in such strikes."

In a dissenting opinion, board member Lauren McFerran wrote that the majority decision "takes a legitimate protest by unrepresented workers, dissatisfied with the working conditions dictated by a giant in the retail industry, and classifies it as an unprotected 'intermittent' strike -- even though it was buffered by months of strike inactivity, a tiny percentage of the workforce participated, and no serious difficulties for store operations resulted."

McFerran also noted that of the 54 workers who were disciplined or fired, 29 had participated only in the Ride for Respect and not in the other three strikes during the 2012-2013 period.

"The majority's decision ensures that future protests at this retail giant will run the risk of being deemed unprotected under its newly expanded view of the intermittent-strike doctrine," McFerran said in the opinion. "It will also hamstring other nonunion workers who might seek to use work stoppages to raise awareness about their wages and working conditions."

Walmart said in a statement Monday that it's "pleased that the NLRB reaffirmed the law, which for decades has said this type of activity is not protected. Our position from the beginning is that we acted lawfully and respectfully and this decision shows that the Board agreed."

Taylor Campbell, communications director for United for Respect at Walmart, said in an email Monday that the organization has no comment on the ruling "at this time."

Earlier this year, the group invited presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., to attend Walmart's annual shareholders business meeting to read a proposal to give hourly workers a seat on the retailer's board of directors. Shareholders rejected the proposal.

Business on 07/30/2019

Print Headline: Board backs Walmart protest firings

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