Mega-retailer Walmart has closed five stores across the country – two in Texas – for one reason:
“They came in and announced that they were going to close the store for at least six months due to extensive plumbing issues,” Livingston, Texas City Attorney Jim Wright says.
That’s right, plumbing issues. Seem strange? People in Livingston think so. The speculation mill is in full swing.
“You know everything from aliens to the government coming in to make Walmart some kind of detention center,” Wright says.
Now a union representing some of the laid-off workers is seeking an injunction that would force the company to re-hire workers.
The Midland Reporter-Telegram’s Joe Basco says he got a call from Walmart spokesman William Wertz at about 1:30 last Monday afternoon.
“It was very sudden,” Basco says. “One of the first questions I asked was, ‘so when is this closing?’ And he very bluntly goes, ‘tonight.’ And I was kind of shocked that he said that because that was like a five hour notice.”
It appears the around 400 Walmart workers in Midland didn’t get much more of a heads up.
“Online, people were saying that they were notified at like 1 o’clock or noon. They only received two months pay or the option to relocate to the Odessa store,” Basco says.
The same was true in Livingston.
“We received a call from one of the Walmart managers,” City Attorney Wright says. “He said he had someone from the home office with him and they wanted to schedule a meeting that afternoon with city officials. They had an announcement to make. We were excited – we thought it was some major announcement over an expansion or something. They came in and announced they would be closing the store at 7 o’clock that night and that was that.”
The reason in both Texas stores and the other three across the country: the apparent on-going plumbing issues.
“They said they had 120 service calls within the last year and it’s gotten to the point where they can’t ignore it anymore,” Wright says.
“I’ve been to the bathrooms at that Walmart and I’ve never personally had a problem with those toilets or sinks or whatever so that was kind of odd for him to say that there’s been ‘longstanding issues’ for the past two years because I’ve personally never seen those issues come up,” Basco says. “I walk around the store and I never saw any flooding or anything like that. I mean maybe in the back area there could have been plumbing issues but at least in the front of the store, from where customers could see, I saw no problems at all.”
Basco’s confusion was not unique.
“Well, at this point, we haven’t gotten any permit for any plumbing work to be done at Walmart,” Midland Public Information Officer Sarah Bustilloz says. “From our understanding, this would be pretty substantial work so that is something that would require a permit.”
Livingston hasn’t received a permit request from Walmart, either.
“They said they were going to have to literally make the store vacant in order to tear into the slab to figure out the plumbing problem,” Wright says. “They said that once they figured out what the problem was, they would be back in to request permits for repairs.”
So is this really about plumbing? A union representing workers at the California store says that store was actually closed because its workers have been outspoken about pay and working conditions.
The United Food and Commercial Workers International Union is seeking an injunction from the National Labor Relations Board. It wants Walmart to re-hire all of the 2,200 affected workers at the five stores.
The world’s largest retailer has a history of being tough on union organizing
In June 2014, the Canadian Supreme Court ruled Walmart violated labor laws when it closed a store in Quebec after employees voted to join a union.
So could Walmart be trying to quash organizing at these five stores? That’s what Joe Basco with the Midland Reporter-Telegram is left wondering.
“No, I haven’t heard anything about union activity at the Midland store,” Basco says.
Neither had the folks in Livingston.
Walmart maintains that the closures – which could last six months or longer – are all about plumbing.
In a statement to the Midland Reporter-Telegram the company said “Deciding to close a store is not a decision we make lightly, but after careful consideration, we felt it was necessary to make these repairs so we can better serve our customers and the community in the long run.”
In the meantime, about 800 Walmart employees across the state are figuring out what they’ll do next… and the people who rely on the stores are also having to hustle.
“This is forcing a lot of the Midland residents to have to go to other grocery stores that are already packed such as H-E-B,” Basco says. “It’s also causing Albertsons to get more customers than usual so yeah there’s definitely this diversion of customers that are now filling grocery stores that are already busy.”
The nearest Walmart from Livingston is about 30 miles away but many people are encouraging shoppers to stay local.