The National Labor Relations Board went easy on the United Food and Commercial Workers union today in a case in which the retailer Wal-Mart claimed the union was illegally picketing them. The board simply accepted at face value the union’s claim that it was not trying to organize the retail giant’s workforce and its promise not to do it again … for 60 days at least.

Federal law says a union cannot picket a worksite for more than 30 days without officially filing to try to organize its workforce. The UFCW, whose members primarily work for Wal-Mart’s rivals, has managed a long-running PR campaign to attack the nonunion retail giant. Most recently it attempted to engineer a mass employee walkout at Walmarts on the day after Thanksgiving. The effort fizzled.

On Nov. 20, Walmart maintained that two activist groups promoting the walkout effort, Making Change for Wal-Mart and OUR Walmart, were actually front groups for UFCW and ordered that they cease their activities. The groups were promoting themselves as independent grassroots organizations in an attempt to obscure the UFCW’s role in the protests.

In a statement issued today, the NLRB said:

The NLRB Office of General Counsel today announced that, based on specific commitments made by the United Food and Commercial Workers union, it is not necessary to decide the merits of an unfair labor practice charge filed by Wal-Mart against the UFCW.

In that charge, filed November 20, Wal-Mart alleged that the union violated the National Labor Relations Act by picketing at its stores for more than 30 days with the intent of seeking recognition for the union, without filing a petition for an election. The union, however, contended that the actions at the stores were not intended to gain union recognition, but to help employees in their efforts to have the employer commit to certain labor rights and standards.

The charge will be held in abeyance and dismissed in six months as long as the union complies with the commitments it has made. Under those commitments, described in an Advice Memorandum, the union disavowed any recognitional or organizational object and promised to maintain a disclaimer to that effect on Making Change for Wal-Mart and OUR Walmart websites. The union also promised, among other things, not to engage in any picketing or confrontational conduct which is the functional equivalent of picketing for 60 days.

In the short, the NLRB slapped the UFCW on the wrist and gave them a 60-day timeout, after which they will presumably return to their old activities. The ruling does at least clarify that Making Change for Wal-Mart and OUR Walmart are indeed UFCW front groups.

The five-member NLRB, which is supposed to neutrally administrate the National Labor Relations Act, is currently stacked with three President Obama appointees and no Republicans. Even before that the board was widely alleged to have pro-union bias.

Earlier this month, an Appeals Court panel ruled that Obama violated the Constitution by stacking the board through recess appointments when the Senate wasn’t even in recess. The board has said it will ignore the court’s ruling.

UPDATE: Wal-Mart’s official press release claims victory:

 “Today the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) and the UFCW reached a settlement agreement that will bring the union’s unlawful tactics and disruptions towards Walmart, our associates and our customers to an end.

“We appreciate the thorough efforts of the NLRB in its investigation. Many of the union’s demonstrations and pickets used before Black Friday were illegal. As part of this agreement, the UFCW says in its letter to the board that it has no intent in ‘forcing or requiring Walmart to recognize or bargain with UFCW or OUR Walmart as the representative of its employees.’

In addition, the union and its subsidiary, OUR Walmart:

  • will stop all unlawful recognitional picketing, the basis of the Unfair Labor Practice charge against the union,
  • will stop encouraging unlawful disruptions by nearly 30 affiliated groups and,
  • will stop all picketing and confrontational conduct at our stores and other company facilities for at least 60 days.

“The Unfair Labor Practice charge against the union will also remain in place for several months as part of this settlement to hold the UFCW accountable should it violate the agreement during that time.

“This is good news for our associates, who have asked us to stand up to this conduct because they understand better than anyone the opportunities Walmart offers.  In fact, every year we promote about 170,000 people to jobs with more responsibility and higher pay.  Additionally, about 75 percent of our store management started as hourly associates and we have more than a quarter million associates who have been with the company for more than 10 years.

“Our associates can now move forward knowing that the UFCW must stop its illegal and disruptive activities.

A UFCW official said a statement would be forthcoming.

CLARIFICATION: In retrospect, my original headline for this blog post — “NLRB sides with UFCW in Wal-Mart case” — probably mislead readers regarding the NLRB’s ruling since the board did find that UFCW’s actions had gone over the line. I have corrected that and expanded the rest of the blog post. I stand by my assessment that the penalty on the UFCW was a slap on the wrist though.