April 16, 2015

Erica Smiley

After Closing Stores, Walmart’s “Plumbing Problems” Excuse Doesn’t Hold Water

The Walmart store in Pico Rivera, California, was home to the first-ever strike by Walmart employees in the United States in 2012. Walmart only gave employees a few hours’ notice before closing the store this week. Photo by Aurelio Jose Barrera, courtesy of OUR Walmart

UPDATE (4/20/2015): Today, members of OUR Walmart have filed a claim with the National Labor Relations Board seeking an injunction to require Walmart to rehire all 2,200 employees laid off last week.

The group has also launched a petition to Walmart CEO Doug McMillon, calling on him to transfer all laid off employees to the Walmart nearest their home, compensate them until arrangements can be made for their transfer, and offer them the opportunity to return to their store once it reopens.

Add your name to the petition now »

This week, hundreds of employees at Walmart stores across the country were informed that they no longer have a job at the retailer.

Walmart suddenly announced that it would be immediately closing five stores for at least six months due to “plumbing problems.” While the company claimed the problems have persisted for the last few years, in each incident, Walmart only gave employees a few hours’ notice that their stores were closing.

Remarkably, Walmart’s spokesperson, Delia Garcia, claimed “these are not layoffs” just before clarifying that “everyone will have to reapply as if new employees” once the stores reopen.

Not surprisingly, many employees and customers aren’t buying it. According to city officials in Pico Rivera, CA, home to one of the five closed stores, Walmart has not even applied for permits to engage in plumbing work. The other shuttered locations included stores in Livingston, TX; Midland, TX; Brandon, FL; and Tulsa, OK. As one Walmart customer at a store in Florida noted:

“If it was a plumbing issue, would they really wait this long to shut down immediately?”

Given Walmart’s well-documented track record of retaliating against employees who speak out for better working conditions, it’s much more likely that this recent spate of store closings is just the latest effort to silence dissent within the company’s workforce.

At the Pico Rivera store, the mostly Latina workers have been some of the most vocal Walmart associates calling for improved conditions at the retailer. In 2012, the store was home to the first-ever strike by Walmart employees in the United States. On Black Friday last year, the same store saw the first-ever sit-down strike in the company’s history. Indeed, of the approximately 4,000 stores in the country, it’s a curious coincidence that plumbing problems have afflicted the store with the most outspoken workers.

This wouldn’t be the first time Walmart has abruptly closed a store that just so happens to employ a large number of outspoken and well-organized employees. In 2005, Walmart closed a store in Quebec shortly after its employees at the store voted in favor of forming a union. The Canadian Supreme Court later ruled that Walmart’s actions were illegal and ordered the company to compensate the fired employees.

As tens of thousands of men and women rally and strike throughout the country this week as part of the Fight for 15 movement, members of OUR Walmart have no plans to quit speaking out. Pico Rivera associates plan to protest at the store every day until the company guarantees their jobs back. And OUR Walmart, the association of current and former Walmart employees, are calling for all 530 laid off associates at the Pico Rivera store to be transferred to the store nearest them, receive compensation until they are relocated and be offered the possibility to return to their previous positions when the store reopens.

Even if we accept the claim that “plumbing problems” are to blame, for a company with $16 billion in profits last year alone, Walmart could easily afford to accommodate the basic needs of the hundreds of employees it laid off this week.

It was only a few months ago that Walmart CEO Doug McMillon stated one of the company’s “highest priorities must be to invest more in our people this year.” It’s hard to see how laying off hundreds of employees with only a few hours’ notice fits in with Walmart’s newly announced priorities. Once again, we see Walmart’s public relations statements are a far cry from how the retailer actually regards the 1.4 million Americans working for them. As Venanzi Luna, a now-former Walmart associate, explained:

“This is my bread. There’s a lot of single moms here (and) older people that depend on this. This is how we pay our rent, how we take care of our families.”

Walmart’s recent reactions to protests indicate that the ongoing efforts of OUR Walmart and the Fight For $15 movement are having an effect. If it weren’t for the courageous actions of people speaking out for better pay and working conditions at Walmart and other corporate giants, it’s unlikely that the world’s largest retailer would have felt compelled to raise starting wages earlier this year, let alone taken such drastic action this week to silence dissent among the very employees trying to hold them accountable to those promises.

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