National Labor Relations Board attorneys are pursuing charges against Walmart, claiming the nonunion retail giant illegally fired 19 workers for participating in activities related to anti-Walmart protests in 14 states held over the last year and a half. More than 60 Walmart managers and one corporate officer, David Tovar, Walmart's vice president for communications, are named in the complaint.

NLRB attorneys first authorized charges last November in relation to various protest events but held off on filing them in an effort to give Walmart and the complainants a chance to settle. The federal agency said that the discussions "were not successful" and consolidated the charges into a single case Monday.

The filing represents a victory for the United Food and Commercial Workers Union, which has been the leading force behind the protests. UFCW has been backing two nonprofit groups, Our Walmart and Making Change at Walmart, which have organized various anti-Walmart events since late 2012.

A UFCW press release quoted Barbara Collins, a former Placerville, Calif., Walmart associate and one of the fired workers named in the complaint: "Now the federal government is confirming what we already know: We have the right to speak out, and Walmart fired me and my coworkers illegally. With a new CEO taking over in a few weeks, we hope that Walmart will take a new direction in listening to associates and the country in the growing calls to improve jobs."

Walmart spokeswoman Brooke Buchanan argued that the events were not actual grassroots worker protests, but were stage-managed by UFCW. She dismissed the complaint as a just a "procedural step" by the NLRB. She also defended the firings.

"We think no reasonable person would believe that it is OK for someone to come and go from their scheduled shift and not be held accountable and participate in an orchestrated pr campaign. We're not aware of any law that Congress has created allowing for unlimited strike leave for unions to use whenever they want to bring attention to their PR campaign. We believe it was a disruption to our customers. We take this seriously," she told the Washington Examiner.

Buchanan said they had been in "constant contact" with the NLRB in an attempt to resolve the charges. She declined to say why any settlement talks broke down or whether Walmart had made an offer to resolve the complaints.

The NLRB complaint alleges: "During two national television news broadcasts and in statements to employees at Walmart stores in California and Texas, Walmart unlawfully threatened employees with reprisal if they engaged in strikes and protests."

It further alleges that the retailer threatened, disciplined and/or fired workers at stores in California, Colorado, Florida, Illinois, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, North Carolina, Ohio, Texas and Washington state for participating in strikes or protests. In California, Florida, Missouri and Texas, it allegedly disciplined workers in anticipation of strike or protest activity. The complaint involves more than 60 Walmart workers.

Walmart has until Jan. 28 to respond to the charges.

UFCW and Walmart have been engaged in a running battle over unionizing the retailer's 1.3 million U.S. employees for years. For background on the struggle, see my November column about the "black Friday" protests.