OUR Walmart is pushing the chain store for better working conditions. But now, due to “plumbing problems,” many employees are not working at all.
Venanzi Luna went to work on Monday, April 13 just like it was any other day. She’s worked as a deli department manager at the Walmart in Pico Rivera, California, for eight years; for the past four she’s been a member of OUR Walmart, a workers’ organization that has been pressing Walmart to do better by its 1.3 million U.S. employees. Though OUR Walmart is not technically a union, some people at Luna’s store call her “the union girl.”
But she had nothing more planned for April 13 than a regular day at work. When she got to the store and went to clock in, there was a notice posted above the timeclock, informing the associates (Walmart’s term for its workforce) that there would be a mandatory meeting at 1 p.m., with no details as to the meeting’s subject. As she went about her day, Luna noticed that there were human resources people and managers from other nearby stores, and wondered if their presence was connected to the mystery meeting, but, she says, “It was just kind of awkward until 1 p.m.”
And at 1 p.m., just after her lunch break, she went to the meeting, where she and her co-workers were informed that their store was to be closed for six months to a year due to “plumbing problems,” effective immediately.
“I said, ‘Are we all fired?’” she remembers. And in response, she says, they were told they could go home right away if they wanted. They might be transferred to other local stores (there are 45 Walmart stores within 20 miles of their location, according to OUR Walmart), but there was no guarantee that the 530 people who work at the Pico Rivera store will have a job.
“People were crying,” Luna says. “It was just very very sad, something that I’m never going to forget in my life. I don’t care so much about me, I care about my associates, these older ladies who are crying and saying ‘How am I going to do this at my age?’ people I’ve worked with for so many years. They’re like family.”
Walmart has long relied on that family atmosphere to keep the loyalty of workers like Luna despite its low wages and lack of benefits. From the beginning, as historian Bethany Moreton points out in her book To Serve God and Wal-Mart: The Making of Christian Free Enterprise, Walmart staffed its stores with women workers whose emotional labor and “people skills” were not the kind of skills that had traditionally counted in the world of work. That those skills and emotions were undervalued made this workforce cheap; that customers responded to it with loyalty was a bonus that Sam Walton and his family and executives learned to appreciate with lip service if not with raises.
Over two and a half years I’ve spent interviewing Walmart workers involved with OUR Walmart, most of them have said to me a version of what Luna says: “We’re not trying to close down Walmart, we’re trying to make it better.” Many of them liked their jobs at first or still do, but feel that they have been treated unfairly, that their hard work and dedication to the store are not respected. (It’s in the name—OUR Walmart stands for Organization United for Respect at Walmart.) The workers who are willing to lead strikes and protests are often some of Walmart’s best employees, the ones whose concern for their coworkers—concern encouraged by Walmart itself—leads them to take action to try to improve working conditions. It seems especially cruel that it is Walmart that is closing a store that was the site of some of the most famous battles to make it better.
“My first reaction was, ‘Are my associates OK?’” Luna says. “I was in shock but I’m in work mode, I can’t freak out. After I spoke to my associates, I’m like ‘Look, they can’t do this, this has a smelly smell to this, this is not right.’ I didn’t say it out loud to my associates but I thought, this is retaliation, they figured let’s clean house.”
This is not Luna’s first experience with what she calls retaliation at the Pico Rivera store. From the time when she was introduced to OUR Walmart by a member of her own family, her niece’s stepmother, well before the union-backed organization made its public debut, she says she was surveilled by her bosses, written up for small infractions. When she was written up for the third time, though, she refused to sign her writeup. “I said I’m not going to sign the paper, you just messed with the wrong person,” she says. It showed her, she says, that “you never cared about me.”
That family atmosphere had backfired—when Luna no longer felt like her supervisors cared for her, it motivated her to fight, and it helped her convince her colleagues to take action.
OUR Walmart helped her file a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board; after that, she says, right away someone from human resources reached out to her to talk and settle her write-ups. “That actually motivated me and proved to the associates that Walmart is not above the law. That’s how I ended up [getting my co-workers to join the organization], sharing my story and telling them if I can do this, you can do this.”
Luna and her co-workers were the first members of OUR Walmart to go on strike in the fall of 2012. Since then, the organization has continued to grow, holding many more strikes, sending workers to Walmart’s shareholder meetings, and, though Walmart argues otherwise, pushing the company to give its workers a long-overdue raise.
This past fall, Luna took part in dramatic sit-down strikes at the Pico Rivera store. After a first round of sit-downs at the Crenshaw Walmart, Luna laughs, the Pico store was ready for them when they arrived. Most of the doors were guarded, but they managed to sneak in one by one. Huddled under a hoodie to keep her managers from recognizing her, she had to climb a pallet that had been placed in the middle of the Electronics section to get to the front of the store, where she gave the signal to her colleagues by calling out “Stand up!”
“I think I was most happy because we also did it in my store,” she says, “Proving to my store manager, all the retaliation you could do to me, I could still come in here and create the first sit-down, no matter what you throw at me I’m always going to come back taller.”
Twenty-three people were arrested in a traffic-blocking civil disobedience outside the store that day as well.
While it may seem like a leap for Luna to assume that the Pico Rivera store was being closed because of these actions, it’s worth pointing out that it wouldn’t be the first time. After meat cutters in a Texas store voted to join the United Food and Commercial Workers (the union that currently supports OUR Walmart) in 2000, Walmart closed all the meat-cutting departments in its superstores—180 in all. Last year, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that Walmart must compensate the workers at a Jonquiere, Quebec store that it closed in 2005 after the workers voted to join the UFCW.
Reporters have had a hard time finding out more details about the plumbing problems that Walmart says are its reason for closing the Pico store with five hours’ notice, along with two Texas stores, one in Florida and one in Tulsa, Oklahoma that had also seen OUR Walmart activity. ABC News was unable to find any permits for any of the five stores. Pico Rivera’s public works director James Enriquez told reporters, “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 in place the day I was going to close — but we haven’t received anything.”
And Luna asks, “We’ve always been open during construction, what’s the difference? The previous ones were even bigger, we were building from head to toe.”
OUR Walmart has filed a charge with the National Labor Relations Board, making Luna’s claims of retaliation official and asking for immediate relief under section 10j of the National Labor Relations Act. The workers are asking for everyone who was fired to be rehired and reinstated at their stores or transferred without loss of pay until their stores are reopened. The filing argues, “Although Walmart has offered WARN Act payments, the employees are being asked to sign severance agreements in order to receive additional severance pay. Thus, Walmart is attempting to weed out many of the activists in the Pico Rivera store as well as the other stores who are subject to this sudden and wholly unexplained ‘closure’ because of unexplained ‘plumbing problems.’”
According to Luna, even though she’s worked at Walmart for eight years and is a department lead, even though she stayed on for hours after being terminated, selling off the deli meats at half-price, she is still being required to interview for possible transfer positions. When customers asked her what was happening and how Walmart could shut down on such short notice, she says, she told them “This is why Walmart workers go on strike. All this needs to stop, you’ve got to put yourself in their shoes. Are you guys willing to back up the associates?”
Walmart became successful through the work of its (mostly-women) employees, their efforts on behalf of their Walmart “family,” and their loyalty to the company. The relationships those employees formed with their customers, Moreton writes, was key to that success, inspiring loyalty in shoppers as well. OUR Walmart has worked hard not to damage that connection—even the sit-down strikes, Luna notes, were staged in a way that customers could see and respond to the strikers while still being able to go about their errands. They have asked for community support and have repeatedly gotten it. It remains to be seen what customers will do to help the workers who’ve suddenly been laid off.
Luna concludes, “Walmart gets away with a lot of stuff that is not fair, I think it’s time to hold Walmart accountable for their actions. There is no excuse, they just need to reinstate everybody.”
Photo: Courtesy OUR Walmart
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