René Bobadilla had just started lunch on April 13 when he got a call from Walmart’s government relations office.
“I almost choked,” he says.
Bobadilla is the city manager of Pico Rivera and the government relations rep had just informed him that the local Walmart Supercenter was shutting down within hours and possibly for six months — due to a plumbing issue.
That meant 530 workers cut at Pico Rivera’s second-largest employer and a severe budget hit to the San Gabriel Valley city of 63,000. Sales tax from the Supercenter accounts for some 10 percent of city revenues — an estimated $1.4 million a year.
The nature of the problem is a mystery.
“They haven’t told us specifically — is it their main, do they have water coming out of their drain? I don’t know,” Bobadilla says.
The Pico Rivera store is one of five Walmart stores around the country suddenly closed due to vaguely defined plumbing problems. The others are in Midland, TX — where more than 400 employees got the news on a Tuesday afternoon that they no longer had a job on Wednesday — along with Livingston TX, Brandon FL and Tulsa, OK.
The United Food and Commercial Workers have filed a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board asking that the 2,200 layoffs at the five stores be rehired. As it is, if and when the stores re-open, workers must re-apply for their former positions, with no guarantees of a job.
The employees of two of the shut-down stores — in Pico Rivera and Tulsa — have been active in organizing efforts by OUR Walmart to improve working conditions. (The OUR Walmart workers are not organizing for union recognition.) Key to their organizing is opposition to retaliation in the form of reduced hours, firings and demotions when workers speak out.
Capital & Main’s attempts to reach Walmart for comment were unsuccessful.
Evelin Cruz was a department manager for 11 years at the Pico Rivera store. She began organizing in 2011. Associates at the store went on strike in 2012 to bring attention to split-shift scheduling, part-time work and benefits issues, and conducted “countless actions and delegations,” she says.
“The organizing efforts at the stores are “important not only for Walmart but for all retailers,” Cruz says. “Nobody has the guts to stand up to them.”
Cruz describes pop-up picket lines during last November’s Black Friday sale to inform shoppers of Walmart’s labor practices. “If looks could kill, the management team would have killed all of us,” she says.
She was fired, she says, when her employer accused her of purposefully withholding information about a chemical involved in a shipment of photo supplies. She has been unemployed since November, 2014.
Walmart has characterized the recent store closings as a way to better serve customers when the plumbing problems are repaired.
“That is a way to do it — you make it a business decision,” says labor historian Nelson Lichtenstein, who wrote a landmark book on Walmart business practices.
Labor law says a company can’t retaliate against a concerted organizing activity. “This is a way to mask what you are doing. “Walmart has kept stores open in the face of local storms and bad weather, he says. “When they want to do it it’s ‘All hands on deck!’”
Lichtenstein notes that Walmart has more than 4,000 stores. Shutting down five is not a big deal. “They’re always opening 100 and shutting down 100.”
If they want to quell employee rights organizing at the more active Walmart stores, it may not hurt the corporation to close three that are not involved in workers rights organizing. Those stores may even be losing money, Lichtenstein notes.
Lichtenstein says Walmart recognizes these organizing campaigns “as a proto-union. They are willing to spend a lot of money to stop it.”