Judge says Wal-Mart violated Alaska worker's rights

Posted: Sunday, November 17, 2002

ANCHORAGE (AP) -- A National Labor Relations Board judge has ruled that an employee fired from the Wasilla Wal-Mart store should be reinstated and given back pay, saying the company had ''eviscerated'' the worker's rights.

''This is something we're so excited about,'' said Walter Stuart, president of United Food & Commercial Workers statewide Local 1496.

The ruling comes as the UFCW's nationwide campaign to unionize the discount retail chain heats up. There are no unions among the more than 1 million workers in Wal-Mart's U.S. stores, and the company has said it wants it to stay that way. The company has 3,371 stores in the U.S.

The UFCW said Wal-Mart's efforts to keep workers from organizing have strayed into illegality, pointing to a string of complaints against the company, some settled, some pending.

Wal-Mart will appeal the judge's decision, a spokeswoman said.

''Wal-Mart is not antiunion,'' said spokeswoman Cynthia Illick. ''However, we do not feel a union is right for Wal-Mart.''

While the UFCW celebrates the Wasilla decision as the scales of justice tipping toward labor, Judge Burton Litvack cautioned his decision may be reversed.

The National Labor Relations Board, which will hear an appeal, has flip-flopped before on the law at the heart of Litvack's ruling.

The case centers around employees' right to have a co-worker present during a disciplinary talk with management.

In March, the court found, a Wal-Mart employee complained to management that co-worker Ken Stanhope ''got in her face,'' yelling and cursing about management and the need for a union as protection, after first inquiring after her father's health. Managers later approached Stanhope for his side of the story. He said he did not want to talk without a witness.

Litvack said management had three legal choices: agree, stop the interview, or give him the choice of stopping or continuing without a witness. As it was, Stanhope stood as if to leave. One manager testified he told Stanhope to sit down. Another manager then questioned him about his actions. That violated Stanhope's rights to have a witness, Litvack said.

The NLRB has gone back and forth on such rights, and whether or not they apply to nonunion workers, Litvack said. In the latest ruling stemming from an Ohio case, a federal appeals court decided nonunion workers have a right to bring in a witness. As the most current law, that decision was the basis for Litvack's ruling.

But that's not national law and Alaska appeals go to a different court, Litvack said.

''What Wal-Mart is hoping is that the circuit court that handles Alaska cases won't uphold the board's (Ohio) court finding,'' Litvack said. He said Wal-Mart lawyers dropped him a footnote laying that out as their aim.

In another wrinkle, the five presidentially-appointed members of the NLRB are being swapped out, said Catherine Roth, acting regional director for the NLRB's Seattle office. A new Republican-heavy panel will hear Wal-Mart's appeal.

Appeals take six months to a year, said Stuart, Alaska UFCW president. ''They don't happen quick.''

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