Wal-Mart Store Closures: Busted Pipes or Retaliation?

A customer prepares to load her car with the purchases she made at a Walmart store - Source: Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Joe Raedle/Getty Images

A wise man once said, “Don’t mess with the bull, young man. You’ll get the horns.” For Wal-Mart employees at five different stores, learning that lesson has come at the expense of their jobs.

Those employees were let go as Wal-Mart decided to temporarily shutter the five stores they worked at, blaming faulty plumbing for the rather abrupt fashion in which the closures were announced and carried out. While that sounds like a perfectly good reason to temporarily shut down some locations, there is another element to the story that is creating quite the shock wave across the business community.

According to a brief filed with the National Labor Relations Board by The United Food and Commercial Workers International Union, on behalf of those employees, Wal-Mart shut down those five stores due to labor activism. The New York Times reports that per the union’s complaint, Wal-Mart was simply using plumbing problems as a cover story for shutting down its five stores, but the real reason was to retaliate against employees fighting for better conditions.

“Walmart has targeted this store because the associates have been among the most active associates around the country to improve working conditions,” the claim says, per The New York Times.

Wal-Mart has fired back against the claim, sending a statement to CBS reiterating the claim that the closures were due to maintenance issues with the buildings’ plumbing systems. “We don’t believe there is any basis for an injunction,” Wal-Mart’s statement said. “As we have said all along, these stores were closed temporarily so we could fix the ongoing plumbing issues and it would be unfortunate if this outside group attempts to slow this process down for our associates and customers.”

It’s a classic case of he said, she said. The question is, who’s telling the truth?

Seeing as how Wal-Mart’s decision effectively put up to 2,200 people out of work, all hopes are that there were, indeed, some serious plumbing issues. Putting that many people on the sideline without a paycheck just to get back at what is probably a relatively small group of employees would not help win much support in court of public opinion — particularly after the company has had some recent victories after raising wages.

Without any concrete proof, we’d have to assume that Wal-Mart’s plumbing did need a tune-up. But that hasn’t stopped unhappy employees from taking shots at their employer over the whole fiasco, which is expected to last up to six months.

“This is a new low, even for Wal-Mart,” Venanzi Luna, an eight-year Wal-Mart veteran, told CNN. “We know that Walmart is scared of all we have accomplished as members of OUR Wal-Mart so they’re targeting us. It’s unfortunate that Wal-Mart has chosen to hurt the lives of so many people, just to try to conceal their real motives of silencing workers just like they’ve always done.”

And Luna is right. Wal-Mart does have a rich history of fighting unionization, which is one of the reasons it has earned the ire of labor groups and many conscious consumer groups. It’s also one of a number of reasons the company is able to keep prices so low and churn out monstrous profits year after year.

Even so, there is one critical and damning piece of evidence that is still out there: It’s been reported that Wal-Mart never even filed for the proper permits to address the plumbing issues in the affected stores, lending some credence to the union’s complaint to the labor board. WFTS, a Tampa Bay ABC affiliate, reports that not only were permits not sought, but visitors to the stores have said that no work is being performed.

“My building official walked out there and didn’t see any work being done,” James Enriquez, City Manager of Pico Rivera, one of the affected locations, told WFTS. “We’re in a holding pattern. We’re anxious to learn exactly what they’re planning.”

That speaks volumes, and again, gives Wal-Mart employees more ammunition for their complaints to the labor board.

Follow Sam on Twitter @Sliceofginger

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