Walmart thinks it can make us disappear

June 4, 2015

Walmart says it's closing five stores because of plumbing problems--but workers say it's retaliation for their protests and strikes. Elizabeth Schulte reports.

"THEY GAVE us five hours notice. They told us that afternoon: 'This is your last day,'" said Venanzi Luna. She was describing Walmart's announcement on April 13 that the company would be shutting down a Southern California store due to "plumbing issues" and wouldn't be reopening until the problems are fixed.

Luna is among several workers who are part of Organization United for Respect at Walmart (OUR Walmart)--and who are organizing for better working conditions at Walmart in Pico Rivera, about 11 miles south of Los Angeles. The store has been a center for organizing for several years. Workers there took part in the first Walmart strike in 2012. This fall, they organized a sit-in inside the store.

"It was a shock to everyone. No one expected Pico Rivera to shut down," Luna said in an interview. "A lot of the associates were crying because this is how they pay their bills. Workers were crying and were very sad, not knowing where their next paycheck is coming from. It was very sad."

Walmart laid off some 530 workers--or associates, in Walmart-speak--at Pico Rivera and 2,200 total from five stores--two in Texas, and one each in California, Florida and Oklahoma. Walmart claims it is shutting down the stores because of "plumbing problems," but according a complaint filed with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) on behalf of workers, no permits have been sought with the Pico Rivera city administration for any repairs. The same is true at the other stores, according to the complaint.

Walmart workers picketing at the Pico Rivera store
Walmart workers picketing at the Pico Rivera store

In fact, the Pico Rivera store underwent a $500,000 refurbishment in 2014 that included the restrooms and grocery department, according to papers on file with the Pico Rivera building department and reported on by the Los Angeles Times.

You might think that plumbing issues would have been taken care of back then, right? And if the store wasn't closed during that renovation, why is it being closed now?

Luna said that workers and customers were surprised by the announcement. "This is a very busy store with lots of customers day and night," Luna said. "It was a high-volume store that made a lot of money for the company."

But apparently the lost business is a price worth paying if it gets rid of OUR Walmart organizers. "They just shut it down," Luna said. "It was an easy way to take out OUR Walmart."

THE ONLY "problem" Walmart wants fixed is the fact that workers are organizing--and, in the process, making some gains.

In April 2014, Walmart was forced to institute a new scheduling system--workers' inability to get the hours they need, when they need them, is a widespread problem at the company.

Then, this past February, Walmart agreed to change its sick day policy for full-time workers, eliminating its one-day waiting period--full-time workers had to use one of their two personal days to make up for their first day out sick. The company also announced it planned to increase hourly wages for some 500,000 current employees to at least $9 in April--and by February 2016, all current workers are supposed to make $10 an hour.

Walmart workers have joined forces with other low-wage workers in the retail and fast-food industries to demand a $15 minimum wage. Workers' years of campaigning alongside the Fight for 15 helped push the Los Angeles City Council to finally approve an increase in the minimum wage from $9 to $15 by 2020.

Now Walmart is pushing back in the only way it knows how--with ruthless contempt for workers.

Walmart has a history of ruthless and underhanded tactics in the interest of keeping out unions and organizers. In 2000, meat cutters at a Walmart in Jacksonville, Texas, successful organized into a union, a first in Walmart history. Three more stores in Texas and Florida followed suit.

The company's response was swift. It shut down the meat-cutting departments--in all of its stores--and replaced them with "case-ready" beef and pork prepackaged by the meatpacker. No meat-cutting, no meat-cutters, no union.

In 2014, the Canadian Supreme Court ruled that the company violated labor law when it closed a store in Jonquiére, Quebec, after workers voted to join unionize.

Walmart's number one priority remains the same--keeping the union out, no matter what it takes. Workers at Pico Rivera estimate that about 10 percent of the workers have been relocated, and that a lot of workers who are part of OUR Walmart did not go back to work. They've heard from other workers that management is telling them those who were in OUR Walmart aren't getting hired back. At the same time, they say Walmart continues to hire new workers.

The company got in trouble recently for retaliating against its employees, including an NLRB complaint earlier this year that said Walmart illegally fired, disciplined and threatened more than 60 employees in 14 states for participating in legally protected strikes and protests to demand better wages and working conditions.

In its complaint, the NLRB cited memos in which Walmart threatened retaliation against workers who took part in protest actions. This time around, Luna says, Walmart is being careful not to send out any e-mails or leave a paper trail.

ACTIVISTS ORGANIZED a press conference immediately after the closure announcement to explain to the public what was going on. "People were confused why it was closing down for plumbing issues," Luna said. "If the store was open during the remodeling, they asked, then why was it closing down now?"

The Walmart is the second-largest employer in Pico Rivera, a city of some 64,000 residents, most of them Latino. Mayor Gregory Salcido estimates that the city receives about $1.4 million a year in tax revenue from Walmart. So in many ways, Pico Rivera's future depends on this contest between a bitterly anti-union employer and the workers who make Walmart run.

The Walmart store stands on a site where a Ford Motor Co. Los Angeles assembly plant was located from 1957 to 1980. The plant employed some 1,670 people in decent working-class jobs. After that, it was the location for aerospace and technology giant Northrop Grumman Corp. At its height, 12,000 people worked there. The plant closed in 1999. Walmart opened in 2002.

Today, former Walmart associate Jenny Mills lives in a car with her husband in the parking lot of the store. They lost their apartment a year ago when the landlord raised the rent.

The store's closure has been a blow to the community and to neighboring businesses in the plaza where it's located. City officials are opposing the closure, and the El Rancho Unified School District is preparing to vote on a resolution in support of the laid-off Pico Rivera Walmart workers, which calls on Walmart to "commit to transfer all of the associates to surrounding Walmart stores before new people are hired to fill positions in those stores."

Some 40 workers took part in a 24-hour fast last week, which included an ongoing protest in front of the store, with several people camping out overnight in tents. On June 5, OUR Walmart activists from Pico Rivera will be at Walmart's annual shareholders' meeting in Bentonville, Arkansas, to take their demands to the top.

Walmart has some 1.4 million employees nationwide. If OUR Walmart activists can help transform it into a fair workplace, they are well aware of the impact it will make on workers everywhere. Walmart is showing just how hard it will push back, but activists are also steeling themselves for the long-term. As Luna said:

People power makes a difference, and being part of an organization has changed my life in the way I see things. It's about the future of our kids' kids and everybody behind then. We are changing the way companies will treat their workers in the future.

I remember when a HR [human resources] person told me, "You can't change the policy on sick hours," and I said, "You might not, but I could." I'm happy I got to show her that at the end of the day, people power can change things.

This is an opportunity for associates to speak up and tell the truth because, at the end of the day, it's only going to make you stronger. We can show them that without the associates, there is no Walmart, because we make this company look good.

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