PICO RIVERA, California/CHICAGO (Reuters) - A union on Monday asked the National Labor Relations Board to force Wal-Mart to reinstate employees at five stores, accusing the retailer of closing the locations to retaliate against workers for attempts to organize for better pay and benefits.
Wal-Mart Stores, which announced last week that it was temporarily closing five stores in Texas, Oklahoma, Florida and California to fix plumbing issues, denied the union’s claims. It said it would work to reopen the stores, which employed about 2,200 people, as quickly as possible.
“We don’t believe there is any basis for an injunction,” the retailer said in a statement.
In a complaint to the National Labor Relations Board, the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union said Wal-Mart closed a store in Pico Rivera, California, because it has been a center of worker activism, including having the first U.S. strike in 2012. It claimed Wal-Mart shut down the other four stores as cover for the move.
The UFCW is seeking injunctive relief to have the employees
reinstated or transferred to other stores without loss of pay.
About 200 Wal-Mart workers and supporters rallied outside the Pico Rivera store on Monday, some carrying signs reading “Hey Wal-Mart the plumbing excuse stinks.” A representative for the local Democratic congresswoman, Linda Sanchez, read a statement expressing concern about its “abrupt closing.”
Claims to the NLRB are first investigated by a regional director. If a claim is determined to have merit, NLRB counsel may seek an injunction with a federal court while the case moves to an NLRB administrative judge. The judge’s decision can be appealed to the NLRB’s five-member board. However, most cases are settled without formal litigation.
The process can take several months, meaning employees may need to seek work elsewhere before the outcome of the complaint is clear. Wal-Mart said it is offering workers 60 days’ pay and opportunities to transfer to other stores.
“Soon, I won’t know where I’ll get my next paycheck,” said Venanzi Luna, 36, a deli manager and member of OUR Walmart, the UFCW-backed worker group behind recent protests at the store.
Karen Boroff, a professor of management at Seton Hall University, said Wal-Mart would likely have extensive documentation on the repair issues, which could be used to counter the union’s claims. Wal-Mart will need to show the problem is significant at all five stores.
“It can’t be trivial,” she said. “If they can show that, then you have a real fact pattern in its favor.”
Wal-Mart said each of the five locations had more than 100 plumbing problems over the last two years, the most among its 5,000-plus U.S. stores. It provided a list of issues at Pico Rivera, including clogged drains with water flowing onto the sales floor, and said the local health regulator downgraded the deli department in January as a result of the problems.
Wal-Mart recently hiked its minimum hourly wage to at least $9 an hour nationally as part of a $1 billion investment in better pay and benefits for its employees.
Reporting by Nathan Layne in Chicago and Michael Fleeman in Pico Rivera; editing by W Simon, Ted Botha, Christian Plumb and Dan Grebler