In 2013, a group of Walmart workers chartered buses and traveled to the retailer’s Arkansas headquarters to protest what they believed were inadequate wages and unfair treatment of employees. Several people involved in that event were subsequently fired, but a federal labor court now says Walmart must rehire, and provide back pay to, 16 of these workers.
A National Labor Relations Board judge found [PDF] on Thursday that Walmart violated labor law by “disciplining or discharging several associates because they were absent from work while on strike.”
Thursday’s ruling is a response to a complaint filed on the behalf of OUR Walmart, a union-backed group of employees, that accused the retailer of firing more than a dozen employees as punishment for participating in strikes outside its headquarters during the company’s annual shareholders meeting in 2013.
Because the strike, known as the “Ride for Respect” took place in Arkansas, many of the employees traveled by bus, missing additional time at work.
Walmart argued that it was lawful to discipline the workers, who had unexcused absences, because the strikes constituted “intermittent work stoppages” not protected under the National Labor Relations Act.
However, Judge Geoffrey Carter found that the “Ride for Respect” wa sdifferent from an unprotected, intermittent work stoppage for several reasons.
For one, the absences from work could not be characterized as mere interruptions intended to create an atmosphere that is “neither strike nor work.” By making the trek to Arkansas and missing longer periods of work for this protest, the workers effectively took on the same risk as if they had gone on strike, concluded the judge.
The court also took issue with internal Walmart memos that were released in the aftermath of Black Friday 2012 protests by employees.
In those memos, the retailer made it clear to employees that it considered the earlier protests to be unprotected, intermittent work stoppages, and that it would treat any similar activity in the future as if it were not a protected protest.
The judge found that Walmart violated the law with these talking points, because “A reasonable associate confronted with that warning would understandably construe” it as “prohibiting future strikes… irrespective of whether those strikes could accurately be characterized as unprotected intermittent work stoppages or (alternatively) protected strikes or work stoppages.”
In the end, the judge ordered Walmart to offer 16 former employees their previous jobs back and make them “whole for any loss of earning and other benefits suffered as a result of the discrimination against them.”
The company must also hold a meeting in 29 stores to inform workers of their rights to organize under labor laws, and vow not to threaten or discipline employees for their participation in future protests.
Making Change at Walmart, a national campaign to change Walmart, applauded the NLRB judge’s decision, calling the order a “huge victory.”
“Today’s decision proves beyond doubt that Walmart unlawfully fired, threatened, and disciplined hard-working employees simply for speaking out,” Jess Levin, communications director for MCAW, said in a statement. “It sends a message to Walmart that its workers cannot be silenced.”
Consumerist reached out to Walmart for comment on the NLRB ruling, we’ll update this post when we hear back.
Since 2012, Walmart has become a target for employees and wage advocates that claim the company doesn’t pay workers a living wage.
Thursday’s ruling is just the latest against the retailer for alleged retaliation against workers.
In December 2014, another NLRB judge ruled that managers at Walmart stores in Richmond and Placerville, CA, acted illegally by penalizing employees for going on strike, threatening to close a store if many of its employees joined a group demanding higher wages and telling employees that co-workers returning from a one-day strike would be looking for a new job.
Before that, in January 2014, the NLRB’s general counsel charged Walmart with illegal activities with regards to disciplining 60 workers – allegedly firing 19 of them – for participating in protests and strikes in 14 states.