Updated Thursday, January 31, 2013 at 05:31 PM
Labor groups say they will end their picketing at Wal-Mart stores for at least 60 days as part of a settlement with the National Labor Relations Board. But they vowed they will continue to press the world's largest retailer to better overall working conditions, including wages.
The agreement, announced by the labor board Thursday, comes after the discounter filed a complaint on Nov. 20 with the board against the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union. It said that demonstrations at the stores organized by union-backed OUR Walmart that culminated on the day after Thanksgiving threatened to disrupt its business and intimidate customers and other store workers.
OUR Walmart is made up of former and current Wal-Mart workers.
Meanwhile, OUR Walmart filed its own charge with the labor board. It cited attempts by Wal-Mart to deter workers from participating in what the group called legally protected walkouts.
At issue were what constitutes picketing and whether the activity was aimed at gaining recognition for the union. Wal-Mart contended that such demonstrations violated labor laws because it claimed the "picketing" lasted more than 30 days and had the intent of unionizing its members.
Union officials have argued that the walk-outs and demonstrations are to protest what it believes are Wal-Mart's retaliation tactics against workers who publicly speak out about working conditions and wages. The tactics allegedly include scheduling changes and reduction in workers' hours. OUR Walmart had argued that because the planned walkouts are in protest of what it believes are unfair labor practices, workers are legally protected under federal labor law.
Wal-Mart Stores Inc. faced a worker walkout last October ahead of its annual investor meeting that expanded to more than a dozen states and involved about 90 workers. Those efforts intensified on the day after Thanksgiving, one of the busiest shopping days of the year, known as "Black Friday."
The agreement, announced Thursday, will stop picketing and "confrontational conduct" at Wal-Mart facilities for at least 60 days. Nancy Cleeland, a spokeswoman at the NLRB, said that it was unnecessary to decide the merits of the labor charge against the UFCW and would set aside pursuing the charge given UFCW's commitments. She said it would dismiss the complaint in six months as long as the union complies with the agreement it made.
In a letter to the National Labor Relations Board from the UFCW that was supplied by Wal-Mart, the labor group said that it also has no intent in "forcing or requiring employees of Wal-Mart to accept or select UFCW or OUR Walmart as the representatives of its employees." It would also not encourage illegal disruptions by other affiliated groups such as Jobs with Justice, and Interfaith Committee for Worker Justice.
The labor groups also said it would not contest if the labor board sought a temporary injunction for future activity that's later deemed to be illegal picketing.
"We appreciate the thorough efforts of the NLRB in its investigation," Wal-Mart said in a statement. "Many of the union's demonstrations and pickets used before Black Friday were illegal."
Ronald Meisburg, a partner at law firm Proskauer and the former general counsel at the labor board from 2006 to 2010, called the agreement a "big win for Wal-Mart." "They're very limited to the type of picketing they can do."
The UFCW issued a statement says that its agreement to refrain from "picketing" or any actions that can be construed as "picketing" for the 60-day period, doesn't "affect or limit the labor groups' ability to otherwise protest, demonstrate or strike because of Walmart's unfair practices and poor record on labor rights and standards" at other venues.
John Logan, professor and director of Labor and Employment Studies at San Francisco State University noted that legally, picketing has a more narrow definition than what one may think.
"The settlement... provides very few restrictions to their ability to protest the company - workers can continue to speak out and take action, from protests to strikes, to improve working conditions at Wal-Mart," he said.
Wal-Mart appears to be listening to the complaints. The retailer announced last month that it would help part-time Wal-Mart workers transition into full-time employment if they want. Wal-Mart said it will make sure that its part-time workers have "first shot" at the full-time job openings in the stores in their area. Wal-Mart said the move will give part-time employees higher earning potential.
"OUR Walmart has been able to raise the voices and concerns of workers at Walmart stores across the country and this resolution ensures that will continue," Colby Harris, a member from OUR Walmart, said in a statement.
AP Writer Chuck Bartels in Little Rock, Ark., contributed to this report.