Who is the woman seen in this photograph talking on a cell phone? Last week she claimed to be “Zoe Mitchell,” a young student at USC interested in the terrible and illegal conditions found inside warehouses that move goods for Walmart. She told warehouse workers she was a journalist interested in their plight. (See her business card and last week’s event sign-in information below. Click to enlarge the image.)
Today, while gathering information at a news conference held by community and labor groups opposed to the retail giant’s entry into Chinatown, she let her true identity slip. “Zoe Mitchell” is completely fictional. Zoe is actually Stephanie Harnett, a fake “reporter” working for Walmart — more precisely, a senior associate at Mercury, a giant PR firm that represents a wide range of corporate interests. Mercury says it is about “high stakes public strategy” and boasts that it is especially adept at “Latino Communications.”
The big question is, Why lie? For months warehouse workers have been asking to meet with Walmart. There have been many opportunities for the company to sit down with workers. Last year the state issued more than $1 million in fines for labor violations at warehouses where workers move goods for Walmart; UCLA conducted a study about the risky working conditions inside the warehouses; Cal/OSHA issued more than 60 violations totaling more than $250,000 in Walmart-contracted warehouses, while workers at one Walmart-contracted warehouse filed a class action lawsuit that documents awful working conditions — including employees working 362 days a year with no breaks and no overtime.
Last week, when Walmart had the chance to talk about real issues affecting Latino workers in Southern California it instead sent “Zoe,” a fake reporter. A spy.
Our door is open. Walmart can change this industry and create thousands of good jobs and improve the quality of life in Southern California, but first it has to come out of hiding.
(Elizabeth Brennan is communications director for Warehouse Workers United. A longer, slightly different version of this post first appeared on the group’s blog June 13.)