Walmart will soon re-open five stores whose temporary closure in April was alleged by union organizers to be a form of retaliation against union-friendly workers. The re-opening means 2,200 laid-off workers may be re-hired in the fall.
The United Food and Commercial Workers union claimed in a labor board complaint that one of the stores, in Pico Rivera, California, was shuttered because of the store's history of labor activism. The other four closures were cover, the union claims. Walmart says all five stores were closed due to "ongoing plumbing issues."
"We thank the community for their patience as we work through these issues," Walmart spokesman Lorenzo Lopez in a statement. "[We] are excited to give our customers a store that better reflects the shopping experience we are providing today in other markets across the country."
Lopez said the company is "now ready to officially begin the hiring process." All laid-off workers seeking employment must re-apply for their former jobs, he said.
Lopez has previously acknowledged that it's unusual for Walmart to close entire stores for repairs. The main reason for the closures was that "these stores had the most recurring plumbing (more than 100 per store) incidences over a two-year period out of the more than 4,500 Walmart stores across the country," he said in an email.
"Even when there was a fire at the McDonald's inside the store, they didn't close us down," said Denise Barlage, 56, who had worked at the Pico Rivera location for nine years. "There were fire trucks and people taken away for smoke inhalation, and then they kept the store open to do the renovations."
The UFCW, in its case before the National Labor Relations Board, seeks to compel the company to re-instate all former workers, without requiring them to re-apply.
"If it is true that the stores were closed for 'plumbing problems,' why is Walmart not reinstating the hard-working men and women that made that store a success in the first place?" asked UFCW spokeswoman Jessica Levin in a statement, calling the closures "an attempt to silence workers."
Pico Rivera was the site of the first-ever strike at Wal-Mart in 2012 and has since been a stronghold for Our Walmart, an organization that aims to improve wages, hours, and working conditions at the company. Previously backed by the UFCW, Our Walmart is now financed mainly by donations from workers and foundations.
"Walmart has targeted this store because the associates have been among the most active associates around the country to improve working conditions," reads the complaint submitted to the National Labor Relations Board, which is currently under investigation by a regional director of the agency.
Barlage, an Our Walmart member, participated in the 2012 strike, as well as a hunger strike against the company's "starvation wages" this year. Barlage she would "absolutely" be re-applying for her job.
Walmart has a history of resisting unionization efforts. In 2000, after the butcher department of a Texas Walmart unionized, the company changed its meat-cutting operations, eliminating the jobs of butchers at that store and more than 150 others. The company stated the plan had already been in the works and was unrelated to unionization. In 2004, shortly after the UFCW unionized a Walmart in Quebec — the first in North America — Walmart closed the store. Canada's Supreme Court ruled last summer that the closure constituted illegal anti-union activity.
"While we continue to conduct plumbing repairs and store upgrades, our goal is to begin serving customers by late October or early November," said Lopez of the planned re-openings.
Cora Lewis is a reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in New York.
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