Little Rock, Ark. The Federal Election Commission has dismissed a complaint by labor groups that accused Wal-Mart Stores of pressuring employees to vote against Democrats in the November election, though FEC staffers warned that the case was a "close call."
Commissioners voted to end the inquiry requested by the AFL-CIO, American Rights at Work and WakeUpWalMart.com after an August article in The Wall Street Journal. However, the six-member commission split on whether employees of the world's largest retailer broke the law when they made comments that went beyond a script regarding a bill that would make it easier for workers to unionize.
Wal-Mart held meetings that store managers and department supervisors were required to attend, to warn that if Democrats prevailed in the general election, they would likely push through a bill that the company says would hurt workers. That bill, known as the Employee Free Choice Act, would allow labor organizations to unionize workplaces without secret ballot elections.
In its findings, commission staffers found that Wal-Mart put together a script and slideshow presentation to show to hourly employees who supervise other workers at the retail chain. Wal-Mart has vigorously opposed unionization efforts at its stores in the past.
One slide warned: "If Democrats win enough Senate seats and we elect a Democratic President in 2008, this will be the first bill presented." Two slides later, the commission's report said, those giving the presentations were asked to tell workers that such bills would be "potentially harmful to our business."
"We are not trying to tell you or anyone else how to vote or who a person can support. Republican, Democrat or Independent: That is your personal choice," the script reads. "However, we do want to encourage you to be informed on how congressional and presidential decisions could impact our personal lives and the company we work for."
In a decision announced Tuesday to reporters, the commissioners agreed that the script and slide show themselves weren't a violation of federal election law. However, the commission deadlocked over the steps individual presenters took when sharing the information with other workers. In a letter, commissioners Cynthia L. Bauerly and Ellen L. Weintraub wrote that they felt a "limited investigation" was needed to ferret out whether Wal-Mart encouraged workers to embellish the script.
"There was not enough information at this stage of the proceeding conclusively to determine that Wal-Mart either did or did not attempt to coerce its employees into voting against Democratic candidates," the commissioners wrote. "What we did not have was sufficient information to find no reason to believe a violation occurred, given the public statements of the employees and (the) corporation's response."
Officials with the AFL-CIO referred questions to American Rights at Work, a labor advocacy group supported by unions and progressive groups. Josh Goldstein, a spokesman for the organization, said the group would examine what options it had after the FEC's decision. An FEC spokeswoman said the groups likely would have to file a new complaint to bring the matter back before commissioners.