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Anti-Wal-Mart labor groups agree to stop picketing the chain

By Jessica Wohl

(Reuters) - Labor groups that have long spoken out against Wal-Mart Stores Inc will stop much of their picketing against the world's largest retailer, though they still plan to continue to push the company to improve working conditions.

The United Food and Commercial Workers International Union, or UFCW, and OUR Walmart reached an agreement with the National Labor Relations Board, the groups and Walmart U.S., said on Thursday.

The labor groups claim that they were not trying to unionize Walmart workers with their actions, which included a small number of Walmart's more than 1.3 million U.S. employees engaging in protests outside of Walmart stores.

The agreement comes after Wal-Mart filed an unfair labor practice charge against the UFCW in November, asking the NLRB to halt what the retailer said were unlawful attempts to disrupt its business.

The UFCW and OUR Walmart - a UFCW-supported group of current and former Wal-Mart workers - said that they do not intend to have Wal-Mart recognize or bargain with them as the representative of Wal-Mart employees.

Walmart said that many of the union's demonstrations and pickets before Black Friday were illegal, a claim that the UFCW denied. OUR Walmart said its protests were legally protected.

The UFCW and OUR Walmart will stop any unlawful recognitional picketing, will stop encouraging unlawful disruptions by other affiliated groups and will stop any picketing at Walmart stores and facilities for at least 60 days.

Recognitional picketing is done to try to get an employer to recognize a union as the bargaining representative for its employees and is subject to certain restrictions under the National Labor Relations Act.

The groups also said they would not fight it if the NLRB sought a temporary injunction against any future activity that it found to be the equivalent of picketing.

BUSINESS AS USUAL

Wal-Mart filed with the NLRB after groups planned major protests at its stores for Black Friday, a busy shopping day. The NLRB did not issue any ruling before that day, and while several protests took place they did not hurt sales, as the Walmart chain of thousands of stores across the United States said it had its best Black Friday ever.

The agreement is unlikely to make a huge difference to the campaign, as OUR Walmart, the UFCW and others can still publicly voice their concerns without doing anything that would be legally defined as picketing, said John Logan, professor of labor and employment studies at San Francisco State University.

OUR Walmart said the agreement does not limit its ability to help employees in their dealings with Walmart over labor rights and standards. The UFCW said that the pact allows the union to continue its support of OUR Walmart and its supporters. The groups said that they are not trying to unionize at Walmart.

"It seems to me they're trying to come very close to the edge," said Ronald Meisburg, a partner at law firm Proskauer, who was the NLRB's general counsel from 2006 to 2010 and also served a recess appointment as a board member for one year.

The agreement is "a big victory for the company," he added.

In mid-January, Walmart said that it would give part-time workers the first shot at full-time positions. It also plans to make scheduling more transparent, giving part-time workers the ability to choose more of their own hours.

"Walmart is hearing us and at least starting to make changes that will improve the lives of workers and their families and our communities, and we will continue to raise our voices until there is real change at Walmart," Colby Harris, a member of OUR Walmart from Dallas, said in a statement provided by the group.

Members of OUR Walmart pay dues of $5 per month.

(Reporting by Jessica Wohl in Chicago; Editing by Gerald E. McCormick and Carol Bishopric)

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