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Michael Hiltzik

Is Wal-Mart closing stores for 'repairs,' or to punish activist workers?

Wal-Mart's sudden store closings look suspiciously like an attack on workers

It's certainly possible that the reason Wal-Mart is temporarily closing five of its stores, including one in Pico Rivera is "ongoing plumbing issues that will require extensive repairs," as it claims.

It's possible that the Pico Rivera closing, which will cost the jobs of more than 500 employees and will last six months to a year, isn't part of an effort to punish workers who who have been at "the center of concerted action by associates to improve the wages and working conditions of all Walmart associates around the country," as the workers asserted in a complaint filed Monday with the National Labor Relations Board.

If so, however, there wouldn't be so many questions about Wal-Mart's repair plans. One wouldn't have to wonder why the giant retailer hasn't applied for building permits for the work. Not at Pico Rivera, nor (according to inquiries by a Tampa TV station) at any of the other four--two in Texas and one each in Florida and Oklahoma.

One wouldn't have to ask why, of the list of 50 "plumbing issues" Wal-Mart provided to The Times dating back to July 2014 for the Pico Rivera store, half were identified as "non-emergency" and involved problems such as leaky urinals and broken toilet handles. 

One wouldn't have to ask why such problems hadn't been fixed when the store underwent a $500,000 refurbishment over the last year, during which it didn't have to be closed--a refurbishment that included the restrooms and the grocery department, according to papers on file with the Pico Rivera building department

Or why, if the plumbing problems were so severe that the building has to be completely shuttered until Christmas and possibly beyond, why Wal-Mart didn't say anything about it until April 13. On that day, according to Venanzi Luna, an employee at the Pico Rivera store, managers called workers to a meeting at 1 p.m. to inform them the location would be closed as of 7 p.m.

The other stores were closed with similar speed. No advance warning to the customer base, to the communities, or to the employees. 

Back in February, Wal-Mart made a high-profile bid to turn around its reputation for scandalously poor wages and working conditions for many of its 1.4 million U.S. workers. The company said it would raise minimum starting pay to $9 an hour beginning next month and $10 an hour as of February 2016.

But its handling of the store closings, which will affect 2,200 workers overall, supports speculation that the February wage initiative was just for show--that Wal-Mart's solicitude for its immense workforce is barely skin-deep.

Luna, 36, who is a leader in the movement for better pay and conditions for employees, says the Pico Rivera staff were told that they could apply for positions at other area stores. There were no guarantees, however, that any jobs would be available, much less jobs at the same pay and classification they had at Pico Rivera. The workers were told that once the Pico Rivera store reopened, they would have to reapply for jobs, and that regardless of their job level and pay on the shutdown date, it might be at minimum wage.  

"That's standard for our HR [human resources] procedures," Wal-Mart spokesman Brian Nick told me. The workers are entitled to 60 days' severance, he said. But that's not by Wal-Mart's choice; it's mandated by federal and California state laws, which say that workers must be given 60 days' notice of a mass layoff, or be paid for that period. 

The Pico Rivera workers assert in their NLRB complaint that the four other store closings are just a smokescreen to conceal that they're the company's real target. Pico Rivera, after all, has been a hotbed of Wal-Mart employee activism through the nationwide group OUR Walmart (an acronym for "Organization United for Respect"). "This unprecedented 'closure' to fix 'plumbing' is part of Walmart's overall national strategy to punish associates who stand up and speak out for better working conditions," they said in the complaint. 

They note that the Pico Rivera store was the site of the first OUR Walmart strike in 2012 and remained a center of vocal activism on "issues of scheduling, pay, benefits, part-time work, unfair treatment and discrimination throughout the country." They're asking the NLRB to order Wal-Mart to find jobs for the 2,200 laid-off workers without loss of pay, or to reinstate them at their old stores.

The organization Making Change at Walmart, which is associated with the United Food and Commercial Workers union, observes further that Wal-Mart has been accused of anti-union maneuvers in the past. The Supreme Court of Canada ruled last year that the company had illegally closed a Quebec store in 2005 after the workers had filed to unionize; the company denied the shutdown was related to the union campaign. In 2000, after meat cutters at a Texas supercenter voted to join the UFCW, the company announced it would close meat-cutting operations in 180 stores and switch to prepackaged meats, a move that "shows the extent to which Wal-Mart will go to keep the union out of its stores," the UFCW said. 

Wal-Mart's Nick says the recent closings were done abruptly so that the work could get underway promptly, and that building permits haven't yet been sought because the scope of work hasn't been set.

But he maintained that the five closed stores had the largest number of repair work orders in the company, and that the work is urgent. In January, the Pico Rivera store's deli department was downgraded from an A to B by the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health because it had no hot water. Luna, who had worked at the store for eight years and was earning $14.40 an hour as a deli department manager, said that had nothing to do with a plumbing problem but resulted from a malfunctioning hot water heater. The downgrade happened, she said, because store managers weren't on site to get the heater fixed before the county's deadline.

Nick acknowledged that the store did undergo remodeling, but added, "that's why the recurring plumbing reports are particularly problematic." City documents show that much of the refurbishment was completed, inspected and approved by the city before the end of December.

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