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Federal labor officials said Monday that they will decide quickly whether to support a request by Wal-Mart Stores Inc. to stop a union-backed group from encouraging worker walk-outs at hundreds of stores on Friday, the traditional start of the holiday shopping season.
The world's largest retailer, based in Bentonville, Ark., filed an unfair labor practice charge with the National Labor Relations Board on Friday against the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union. It said that the demonstrations organized by union-backed OUR Walmart threatens to disrupt its business and intimidate customers and other associates.
OUR Walmart, formed in 2010 to press the company for better working conditions, is made up of current and former Wal-Mart workers.
"We are working as fast as we can." said Nancy Cleeland, a spokeswoman at the NLRB, which is setting a goal of 72 hours since the filing to assess whether the complaint has merit. She noted that by statute the agency must make a charge of illegal picketing a priority before all other cases. She says the agency has to decide two main issues: whether workers are picketing and if so, whether the picketing was with the intent of unionizing workers. She said that the agency had staff members at Wal-Mart headquarters on Monday to take affidavits. It's also in touch with the UFCW for its response.
"This is a complicated case," Cleeland said. She noted that if the labor board decides Wal-Mart's complaint has merit, the matter then goes to district court.
Wal-Mart faced a worker walk-out in October ahead of its annual investor meeting that expanded to more than a dozen states and involved about 90 workers. Wal-Mart workers again walked off their jobs last week in Dallas, Oakland, Calif., and Seattle. On Monday some Wal-Mart workers walked off their jobs as well, according to union officials. The number of workers involved could not be confirmed.
Union officials promise the demonstrations will culminate on Black Friday with demonstrations or walkouts at hundreds of stores across the country.
Wal-Mart's U.S. division employs about 1.3 million workers.
"Wal-Mart is doing everything in its power to attempt to silence our voice," said Colby Harris, who works at a Wal-Mart store in Lancaster, Tex. "But nothing_not even this baseless unfair labor practice charge_will stop us from speaking out."
Dan Fogleman, a Wal-Mart spokesman, described the latest tactics from the group as "another exaggerated union campaign."
"Many of these ongoing tactics by the UFCW are unlawful and we will protect our associates and customers," he said. If the disruptions violate the law "we will take the appropriate action to hold them accountable."
Kelly P. Kissel in Little Rock contributed to this report.