msnbc.com news services
updated 4/13/2005 2:52:06 PM ET 2005-04-13T18:52:06

The nation's largest grocery union has filed a complaint against retailing behemoth Wal-Mart Stores Inc., asking the National Labor Relations Board to investigate whether the retailer “bribed” employees to block union activities.

The United Food and Commercial Workers’ complaint comes after The Wall Street Journal reported last week that former Wal-Mart Vice Chairman Tom Coughlin may have used undocumented expense payments to fund anti-union activities, including paying union staffers to tell him of pro-union workers in stores.

Coughlin resigned last month after an internal probe turned up expense account improprieties of to half-a-million dollars. Three Wal-Mart employees, including a company officer, also lost their jobs, and the company turned over materials to federal prosecutors.

Coughlin has denied any wrongdoing, and his lawyer is pressing the company to provide the defense with documents given to federal prosecutors related to the former Wal-Mart executive’s conduct.

The union said its complaint, filed Tuesday, asks the NLRB to “aggressively investigate whether Wal-Mart bribed employees to suppress worker support for union representation.”

“Wal-Mart’s actions seemingly involved the criminal misappropriation of company funds to create an illegal anti-union slush fund,” the union said in a statement.

The union, which is trying to organize workers at Wal-Mart stores, wants the NLRB to subpoena any documents from Wal-Mart that might substantiate those charges. The union already had asked Wal-Mart for the documents, and the charges would formalize the request.

After investigating the documents, the NLRB could dismiss the case, or hold a hearing in front of an administrative law judge if it finds the case holds merit. It also could issue such remedies as making information about workplace rights available to Wal-Mart employees.

A Wal-Mart spokeswoman said the union was filing wild charges in hopes that they would get attention.

“There’s absolutely no evidence to support any of these charges,” spokeswoman Mona Williams said. “The Wall Street Journal reported activity by one individual, and it’s a quantum leap for the UFCW to try to make this a broader issue.

“I think it’s the equivalent of throwing a Hail Mary pass. They’re simply going to file the wildest of charges and see if it gets any attention.”

The company has maintained that no one at Wal-Mart, Coughlin included, was authorized to pay people for information about efforts to organize Wal-Mart stores.

In a letter to the NLRB accompanying the complaint, the union said it suspected that Wal-Mart “spread bribes in stores whose workers were actively organizing but abruptly abandoned their activity” in 13 states.

Wal-Mart is the nation's largest private employer with more than 1.2 million employees and the biggest company by revenue, with sales of $288 billion last year.

The company has repeatedly said its policy of open communication with employees means there is no need for a union, but labor groups contend the retailer is vehemently anti-union.

Reuters and The Associated Press contributed to this story.

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