Earlier this week, we learned that the U.S. National Labor Relation Board issued a complaint against Wal-Mart Stores (NYSE:WMT) Wednesday for the way it treated its striking workers in November 2012. The agency charged the nation’s largest retailer with violating the rights of workers and illegally firing, disciplining, or threatening its employees who participated in the Black Friday strike, and was subsequently praised for implicating the largest employer, which has been fielding labor complaints for years. Wal-Mart has until January 28 to respond to the NLRB complaint, and may reach a settlement before that time, but now law experts are highlighting how the case actually is much more significant that many onlookers might initially expect.
Reuters reported Friday that the NLRB’s challenge Wednesday represented one of the first times the agency has presented a case involving non-union workers. Wal-Mart and organized labor have long been brutal enemies, and this is the first time the government agency has attempted to combat a non-union workplace and assert its role in an increasingly non-union economy. That means that if Wal-Mart loses the case, there will be implications for the retail giant, and if it wins the case, there will be even more of them. Paul Secunda, a professor of labor law, explained via Reuters, “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.”
The way that the case threads together the complaints on behalf of 19 fired Wal-Mart workers is also significant, because the agency decided to group together the charges instead of handling them all at one time, and Sarita Gupta of Jobs of Justice, explained to Reuters that this strategy is “precedent-setting.”
Wal-Mart has long worked to keep its U.S. workforce non-union, despite the fact that the company is one of the world’s largest employers, and its employees have campaigned significantly for a higher pay without the help of them. Workers have partnered with union-backed group, OUR Walmart, to organize protests, but Wal-Mart’s 1.3 million American employees have continued to remain without a union, and that’s not to say that unions haven’t tried to make inroads.
That’s why if the NLRB can come out of the case victorious, it will make a statement for unionizing drives across the country, Reuters explained, and then Wal-Mart and its rivals will understand that they always have the NLRB to answer to. On the other hand, if the NLRB loses, it will award a significant victory for Wal-Mart, and Michael Gold, a professor of labor law, explained that, “If Wal-Mart wins the case, they are really going to trumpet it. They are going to tell their workers, with good case, ‘we did not break the law. The government persecuted us for nothing.’”
That certainly won’t be good news for Wal-Mart workers, especially because they have been protesting the retailer’s labor practices for years, and it also may discourage organized demonstrations in the future now that Wal-Mart can respond however it likes. It thus is clear that Wal-Mart employees need the NLRB on their side, and while they have the agency now, the best case scenario is that they can keep it there.