NEW YORK (AP) — A National Labor Relations Board judge has ruled that Wal-Mart Stores Inc. unlawfully disciplined workers who staged protests in May and June of 2013 and ordered the retailer to reinstate 16 former employees, as well as give them back pay.

Judge Geoffrey Carter ruled that the employee actions were protected under the National Labor Relations Act and that Wal-Mart violated labor laws by "disciplining or discharging several associates because they were absent from work while on strike."

The judge also ordered Wal-Mart to hold a meeting in 29 stores throughout the country to inform employees of their right to strike, and to promise not to threaten or discipline employees for doing so.

The complaint was filed on behalf of the labor-backed group "Our Walmart," which called it a huge victory.

The decision, posted on the labor board's website late Thursday, arrived one day after the nation's largest private employer announced raises for more than 1.2 million U.S. hourly workers, which is most of them. The Bentonville, Arkansas, retailer said in October that it would invest $2.7 billion in its workforce over two years.

In a statement e-mailed to The Associated Press, Wal-Mart spokesman Kory Lundberg said that it disagreed with the judge's findings and that it will pursue all of its options to defend the company. It called its actions "legal and justified."

"We are focused on providing our hard working associates more opportunity for success and career growth by raising wages, providing new training, education and expanded benefit options," Lundberg wrote.