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Workers Allege Walmart Closes Stores To Retaliate Against Strikes

Walmart workers protesting outside the Pico Rivera store in 2013 CREDIT: FLICKR/UFCW INTERNATIONAL UNION
Walmart workers protesting outside the Pico Rivera store in 2013 CREDIT: FLICKR/UFCW INTERNATIONAL UNION

Venanzi Luna says she was given just four hours notice that she was losing her job at Walmart. That day, she says everyone came to work around 7:00 in the morning. “We actually ended up finding out around 1:00 in the afternoon,” she recounted. She and her fellow workers were told that their store in Pico Rivera, California was going to close for six months to a year to deal with plumbing issues. “They gave us a four-hour warning,” she said. After the meeting, “they sent everybody home.”

Pico Rivera isn’t the only store that’s been closed; four others, in California, Florida, Oklahoma, and Texas, have also been shut down. In total, 2,200 Walmart workers’ employment, including 500 from Luna’s store, is in limbo.

But the workers at her location have decided to take action. Over the weekend, the AFL-CIO and United Food & Commercial Workers International Union filed an injunction on their behalf with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) against Walmart. “The Board should seek injunctive relief compelling Walmart to rehire every one of the 2200 Associates who have been terminated in all 5 stores,” it says.

Luna says it’s been very hard on her. “I’m actually the breadwinner of my house. It affects me a lot,” she said. “How am I going to pay for my parents’ medication, how will I pay my bills? I get really stressed out quick, so for me it is a big deal.”

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Walmart says the stores have to be shut down to fix serious building issues. “Due to ongoing plumbing issues that will require extensive repairs, we are temporarily closing five stores,” a spokesperson said. “Each of these five locations had more than 100 plumbing problems reported over the last two years, the most out of our more than 5,000 stores in the U.S.” He did not respond to a request for more information about what the plumbing issues entail or whether employees will be transferred to other stores. He added, “We don’t believe there is any basis for an injunction.”

Workers in Pico Rivera, however, contend that the closing is in retaliation for the extensive organizing action at that location. It was the first store to experience a strike in 2012, before workers began staging regular strikes against the company to demand higher pay and the right to form a union. “Walmart has targeted this store because the Associates have been among the most active Associates around the country to improve working conditions,” the injunction reads. “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.”

As proof, the injunction points out that Walmart has yet to seek work permits with the city of Pico Rivera. An employee with the city confirmed to ThinkProgress that Walmart has not yet pulled any permits related to the improvements, but he noted that this isn’t necessarily unusual. “It is not uncommon for this action to take place prior to any permits being pulled,” he said. “The reality is they’re probably doing assessments.”

For her part, Luna is hoping the injunction provides more certainty to her and her fellow workers. When they were told of the closure, their managers said they would try their best to transfer people to other stores but didn’t make any promises. “I’m hoping that the injunction becomes positive for the associates, because at the end of the day, we have no guarantee that Walmart is going to put us anywhere,” she said.

She’s particularly concerned for her own employment. She’s visited other stores in the area to see if they have any openings but all of them have told her there aren’t any. “I’m trying to do my part to make sure I have a job,” she said. But she worries that even if openings become available to transfer to another location, she’ll be the last considered for them given her involvement in the first strike as well as sit down protests and arrests in front of the store. “Why would they want somebody really active and organizing their store at another store?” she asked.

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It has yet to be seen what the NLRB will do in response. But in 2013, the board announced it would prosecute Walmart for violating workers’ rights by retaliating against workers who went on strike or attempted to unionize after it reviewed a variety of charges and found merit in those lodged against stores in 13 states.