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Wal-Mart Settlement Motives Questioned

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January 6, 2009

Madison, WI - The issue of workers' rights is heating up again, as Wal-Mart has agreed to settle 63 lawsuits alleging it underpaid workers across the country. Some people are suggesting the Wal-Mart settlement offer is aimed at blunting the proposed Employee Free Choice Act, which Congress is expected to consider this year.

Attorney Mark Thomsen, president of the Wisconsin Association For Justice, said many big corporations such as Wal-Mart oppose the measure because it would make it easier for workers to unionize.

"One could suppose that Wal-Mart prefers a situation where there's at-will employees."

At-will means either party can break the relationship with no liability, because there is no labor union or contract.

The total settlement could cost Wal-Mart up to $640 million. Each of the proposed settlements must still be approved by a trial judge.

According to Thomsen, many large corporations want to make it as difficult as possible for expanded workers' rights measures to succeed.

"They're free to essentially dictate, on a day-to-day basis, everything outside of the law. They don't have any contract or union representation to deal with."

The current law in many states gives employers a lot of latitude, and Thomsen said big corporations have a great desire to maintain the status quo.

"Even under Wisconsin law, employers are allowed to lie to employees, without any recourse for intentional misrepresentation."

A Wal-Mart spokesman said many of the worker lawsuits were filed years ago and their subjects are not representative of the company's current practices. The company has instituted a public relations campaign to improve its image, along with a new logo and redesigned stores.

Glen Gardner, Public News Service - WI