Sophomore, History major
What if I told you we live in a society in which over 2000 people could lose their jobs at the drop of a hat? Or that employees of a certain company are given a 5-hour notice when their jobs are terminated “indefinitely?” Unfortunately, this society is our own – the company: Wal-Mart.
On April 13, 2015, Wal-Mart shut down 5 of its stores, 2 stores in Texas (Livingston and Midland) and 1 store in Oklahoma (Tulsa), California (Pico Rivera), and Florida (Brandon), for an “estimated 6 months.” Why would Wal-Mart close down 5 geographically isolated stores? Severe “plumbing issues.”
On the day of the closing, Wal-Mart told the public, “We will immediately begin the process to address these [plumbing] issues,” and reopen the stores promptly. As for the 2,200 laid-off associates, Wal-Mart stated it would provide 60 days of pay and reinstate or transfer as many as possible. After the 60-day period, those still unemployed, “may be eligible for severance…if they meet certain eligibility requirements.”
While there are a number of “government-takeover” conspiracy theories floating around, the truth is this: Wal-Mart has an extensive history of punishing and retaliating against its employees for organizing and demonstrating for better working conditions. These April 2015 closings are consistent with Wal-Mart’s pattern against employees. So, let’s unpack this together.
“Deciding to close a store is not a decision we make lightly. [We] intend to open the store(s) as soon as all of the plumbing issues are resolved…”
-Wal-Mart press release statement, April 13, 2015
6 months to fix plumbing issues: is this reasonable? Codi Bauer, a Wal-Mart plumbing technician who worked at the now-closed Brandon, FL Wal-Mart, claimed, “even if they wanted to replace the whole sewer line, it wouldn’t take 6 months.” City contractors from Tulsa, OK argue, “Stores like that [Wal-Mart] can be built from the ground up in 6 months.”
In fact, when Wal-Mart officials notified Hillsborough County, FL city commissioner Victor Christ of the closing, the words “plumbing issues” were never mentioned. “I actually found out about them [plumbing issues] through a local press report,” Victor Christ describes. “I question what their motives are. It just doesn’t make sense to shut a store down that way.”
Not to mention, Wal-Mart fails to report consistent details of reopening and employee reinstatement. While many representatives maintain the “6 month closing” timeline, others will not disclose any official reopening date. And while a California Wal-Mart communications director assured the public, “these are not layoffs,” the memo Wal-Mart sent to the Midland, TX city manager, on April 13, stated, “These layoffs will be permanent in nature.”
“We will immediately begin the process to address these issues and intend to open the store as soon as all of the plumbing issues are resolved”
-Wal-Mart press release statement, April 13, 2015
According to public officials, Wal-Mart finally pulled demolition/roofing permits late May – more than a month after the closings. If, in fact, these locations require, “serious, necessary repairs,” then Wal-Mart is taking its time. As James Enriquez, public works director for Pico Rivera, CA, commented two weeks after the closing, “If I were a property owner, I’d want to make sure my store was closed as little as possible…I would want a permit to be placed…we haven’t received anything.”
The current situation of former employees is even bleaker. As of late June, 2/3 of the former Brandon-store associates remained jobless. From the Pico Rivera store, only 50 of the 530 had been reinstated, leaving 480, still, unemployed. Given that the 60-day pay period for these 2,200 former employees ended on June 19, the majority of these people face serious problems.
The Midland, TX location is the only exception, for Midland’s recent investment in fracking and oil drilling has caused an influx of money and people. Former Midland Wal-Mart associates, according to public official Sarah Bustilloz, have a variety of new jobs to choose from, given Midland’s job abundance. (We can expect Wal-Mart to point to Midland as a positive example).
As a matter of fact, this 60-day pay period was in no way provided as a courtesy; it was to work around the WARN Act, which states that a company must inform employees 60 days in advance of massive, simultaneous layoffs. Instead, Wal-Mart deliberately withheld their plans to close down the 5 stores and, so as to avoid legal scrutiny, provided 60 days of pay to employees.
At this point, we have an abundance of evidence that suggests the following: the plumbing issues do not exist (at least, not to a severe extent), Wal-Mart is addressing these “issues” at a lethargic pace, and former employees are receiving little to no assistance from Wal-Mart. We are still left with, however, the big question: why? Why would Wal-Mart go through such lengths to enact these closings?
Evidence traces back to an organization called OUR Wal-Mart (Organization United for Respect) and the former Wal-Mart of Pico Rivera, CA.
“Whose Wal-Mart? OUR Wal-Mart”
–OUR Wal-Mart chant and phrase
The OUR Wal-Mart organization is dedicated to protecting the rights of all Wal-Mart associates. From demanding an end to Wal-Mart’s unethical reduction of employee hours to raising the minimum wage to $15/hr., OUR Wal-Mart has proven increasingly successful in drawing support and organizing demonstrations. The Pico Rivera Wal-Mart was one of OUR Wal-Mart’s primary hotspots.
In October 2012, Pico Rivera Wal-Mart associates and OUR Wal-Mart made history by organizing the first strike against Wal-Mart in the country. “On strike for the freedom to speak out” was the phrase professed by 70 LA Wal-Mart employees on strike and nearly 180 supporters outside the Pico store. This strike went on to inspire even bigger demonstrations, what with wage protests erupting in over 15 major cities in fall of 2013.
Describing the Nov 2013 strike at Pico Rivera, Wal-Mart associate Evelyn Cruz revealed, “The reason we went on strike last week was for Wal-Mart to actually pay the associates a living wage…they’re cutting people’s hours and people can’t survive on 16 hours a week of work.” Over the past few years, countless associates have had their hours reduced to 28, 16, even 8 hours per week after demonstrating, communicating their working conditions, or even wearing OUR Wal-Mart pins on their uniforms. Many have been fired for the same reasons.
To discourage associates from engaging in demonstration/protest activity, Wal-Mart managers go as far as to say, “you should be lucky to get the hours that you get…. you came to us asking for a job.” Under the National Labor Relations Act, however, all employees, union and non-union alike, have the right to, “try to improve their pay and working conditions.” OUR Wal-Mart stands by this right.
The energy of all these protests culminated in the historic Pico Rivera Sit-Down Strike this past Black Friday, Nov 2014. In the middle of the work day, Pico Wal-Mart associates simultaneously sat down and halted all work, holding signs stating “Wal-Mart! Stop the illegal threats.” Then, at night, over 300 associates and supporters took to the streets outside the Pico store. Each time the police arrested a sit-down striker for “blocking street traffic,” the crowd chanted, “We are proud of you!”
“We’re not saying unions aren’t good for some companies, we’re saying they have no place in Wal-Mart.”
-Wal-Mart spokesperson, 2000
At this point, you are probably thinking, “Wal-Mart wouldn’t shut down 5 stores because one store acted up, would they?”
As USF (University of South Florida) professor of history Catherine Conner explains, “Wal-Mart has a solid history of anti-unionization…and some areas have never recovered from the market crash of 2008….Wal-Mart might be preemptively responding but citing declining sales, etc.” So, while Wal-Mart will close down isolated locations due to, in our case, “plumbing issues,” the underlying motivations can very well be concurrent with a larger trend or objective. Our evidence depicts a pretty clear trend.
To quote former Wal-Mart employee and OUR Wal-Mart activist Denise Barlage, “Wal-Mart sets the trend for all companies.” Wal-Mart board members know what they are doing – they know the minute they appeal to the public demands and union requests, much of corporate-retail America will follow suit. This is one reason, among many, why Wal-Mart is so stiffly anti-union.
When Wal-Mart associates from Richmond, California demonstrated, their manager retorted, “If it were up to me, I’d shoot the union.” When Venanzi Luna, OUR Wal-Mart leader and former Wal-Mart department manager, asked CEO Doug McMillan when and how Wal-Mart would reinstate the former 2,200 associates, his response was, “If you were a good enough employee, you [would] have the opportunity to apply.” Wal-Mart has absolutely no respect or loyalty to its employees.
We, also, know the activist fervor from the 2012 strike inspired a surge of completely grassroots protests against Wal-Mart. In Nov 2013, in Tulsa, Oklahoma, one of our 5 towns, with no ties to OUR Wal-Mart or any labor organization, former associates and average citizens demonstrated outside the local Wal-Mart with signs stating, “Higher wages mean lower food stamps.” Across all corners of the country, people are growing incredibly distrustful of Wal-Mart.
Furthermore, there is evidence to suggest the aforementioned extended severance packages available for unemployed-former associates who “meet certain eligibility requirements,” are akin to buyoffs. Basically, should former employees accept the package, they must contractually agree to not participate in demonstrations or strikes against the company, wear the OUR Wal-Mart t-shirt, or advertise against the company.
Finally, we know Wal-Mart has executed these kinds of shut downs before…
“Once again, Wal-Mart has decided it is above the law, and that the only rules that count are their rules.”
-Michael Fraser, national director of UFCW Canada, 2005
In 2000, Wal-Mart meat cutters from Jacksonville, Texas voted to join the UFCW (United Food and Commercial Workers Union). Then, Wal-Mart meat-cutters from 2 other Texas stores and a Florida store quickly followed suit, sending their own applications to the UFCW. One week later, Wal-Mart announced a major shift in meat delivery to customers: in all 180 supercenters, “case ready” meat sections would replace meat-cutting departments.
Just as Wal-Mart maintains that today’s plumbing issues have long been problematic, back in 2000, Wal-Mart stated the shift to case-ready meat had nothing to do with union busting. “This is the way the whole industry is going,” a Wal-Mart representative argued.
Likewise, in 2004, Wal-Mart employees from Jonquière, Quebec also requested to join the UFCW. In 2005, when the Jonquière Wal-Mart successfully became the first unionized store in North America, Wal-Mart forced a shut down because they were, “unable to reach an agreement with the union that in our view will allow the store to operate efficiently and profitably.”
Now, as before, Wal-Mart adamantly opposes successful union development. Yet, it remains mindful of its publicity. As UCSB professor of history Nelson Lichtenstein reveals, when Wal-Mart comes under public attack, “the company [responds] with an aggressive public relations campaign,” so as to maintain its “generous employer” image.
“[These are] REAL people with REAL families and REAL bills…”
-Caleb Bedrosian, former Brandon associate, 2015
Perhaps the most striking consequence of these 2015 Wal-Mart closings is their impact on small towns. Take one of our 5 locations, Livingston, Texas: a town of about 5,300 residents, over 400 of whom worked at the local Wal-Mart. This means that on April 13, 7.5% of Livingston’s population was effectively forced into unemployment.
Local businesses, also, share the consequences. Small shops in Livingston that drew their customer base largely form the influx of weekend shoppers, reported as much as a 50% loss in customer turnout after the closings. As Tampa city commissioner Victor Christ states, “This is one store, but the lack of sales tax revenue affects taxpayers too. It affects everyone.”
We all hurt the same. From the liberals of California and Florida to the conservatives of Texas and Oklahoma, these 2,200 former employees, their families, and the taxpayers of their towns are all sharing the burden of Wal-Mart’s indifference. “It affects everyone.”
“We have to exercise our rights as Americans. This is for our kids. This is for the American Dream”
-Denise Barlage, OUR Wal-Mart activist and former Pico associate, 2015
We started off by questioning Wal-Mart’s reasons for closing down 5 locations this past April. While there are still many unanswered questions regarding the closings, undertaking this investigation has not only revealed Wal-Mart’s true colors, but also the grassroots struggle of OUR Wal-Mart and average citizens against the corporation.
A livable wage of $15/hr., full and consistent work schedules, and an end to retaliation against workers: these demands are well within the capacity of, as labor expert Nelson Lichtenstein illustrates, “the largest and most competitive retailer in the world.” Especially, when one considers how the net worth of the Walton family amounts to over $140 billion.
By now, you may be thinking to yourself: How can I help? What can I do? Well, quite a bit actually. Attached below is a link to OUR Wal-Mart’s web page from which you can find out more information and join the volunteer group. You can, if economically feasible, reduce the frequency with which you shop at Wal-Mart or attempt to boycott them altogether.
And, from the comfort of your own home, you can contact Wal-Mart directly (contact information provided below) to communicate that all former employees who remain unemployed deserve more than, “the opportunity to apply for [extended] severance…if they meet certain eligibility requirements.” They deserve to be transferred and/or re-instated.
In the words of NY Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, “The only time anything ever actually works…is when regular people stand up and demand action.” It is up to us, everyday people like you and me, to ensure this country belongs to the people rather than the corporations and billionaire class. This is the hand we have been dealt. Your voice matters.
“Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never has and it never will.”
OUR Wal-Mart weblink: http://forrespect.org/
Wal-Mart contact information
- Store/Corporate feedback: 1-800-925-6278
- Corporate Offices: 479-273-4000
- List of Wal-Mart Executive Management to whom you may voice your concerns: http://corporate.walmart.com/our-story/leadership/executive-management/
- Denise Barlage, OUR Wal-Mart activist and former Pico Rivera, CA Wal-Mart associate
- Caleb Bedrosian, former Brandon, FL Wal-Mart associate
- Sara Bustilloz, Midland, TX public official
- Victor Christ, Hillsborough Country, FL city commissioner
- James Enriquez, Pico Rivera, CA city manager
- Livingston, TX public officials
Local News Reports , April 2015
2012-13 Articles and Reports
Texas (2000) and Canada (2004/5) closings articles
Picture References (in order of appearance)
 (This evidence is, as of this writing, still under review by former associates and lawyers; we can expect to hear more in the future.)
 Interview with Victor Christ, June 24, 2015
 As described in Wal-Mart’s press release, April 13, 2015.