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Union Files Wal-Mart Complaint

By Michael Barbaro and Amy Joyce
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, April 13, 2005; Page E03

The United Food and Commercial Workers Union filed an unfair labor practice complaint against Wal-Mart Stores Inc. yesterday, urging federal officials to investigate claims that the retailer's former head of U.S. operations paid people to monitor union activity.

The complaint, filed with the National Labor Relations Board, alleges that Wal-Mart violated federal labor law by "bribing" employees to report on co-workers who favored a union.

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Wal-Mart recently ousted board member and former vice chairman Thomas M. Coughlin after an internal investigation raised questions about the use of up to $500,000 in company funds -- money that Coughlin maintains was spent on anti-union activities. Wal-Mart, the nation's largest retailer, has fired three other employees over the probe and has turned the case over to the U.S. attorney for the western division of Arkansas.

The union alleges that during the period Coughlin paid for information about union tactics, Wal-Mart workers "abruptly abandoned" organizing activity in as many as 13 states, including Texas, Florida, Ohio and Pennsylvania.

Wal-Mart labor law violations "extend to the most senior levels of management," the union said in a letter accompanying the complaint, and "should compel" the NLRB "to seek an equally effective and company-wide remedy."

The union requests that the board subpoena "all relevant" information from Wal-Mart as well as the U.S. attorney in Arkansas.

Wal-Mart spokeswoman Mona Williams called the union claims "pure fantasy." The UFCW "is trying to turn the sad story of one man into a broader issue that simply has no basis in fact. Any thinking person will see through it."

Coughlin's attorney declined to comment.

Wal-Mart contends that unions make retailers inefficient and has successfully resisted their formation at its 3,000 U.S. stores. This year, the company announced it would close a Canadian store that had recently voted to organize, saying the Quebec outlet was not profitable. In 2000, shortly after 11 Wal-Mart meat cutters in Texas voted to be represented by the UFCW, the company announced it would pre-package meat and eliminate meat cutter jobs company-wide.

The UFCW, which is trying to unionize Wal-Mart's 1.2 million U.S. workers, has filed more than 370 unfair labor complaints against the retailer since 1995, which account for about 90 percent of the charges filed against the company, according to NLRB records.

The UFCW complaint will automatically trigger an investigation into Wal-Mart's conduct, said Paul Irving, an attorney with the NLRB regional office in Phoenix, where the charge was filed. Depending on its findings, the NLRB will either drop the case or seek a voluntary settlement from Wal-Mart.

In 2004, the NRLB processed 30,000 unfair labor practice complaints. One-third were found to have merit and, of those, 90 percent were settled.

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