Wal-Mart presses case for repairs at stores in labor dispute

Wal-Mart presses case for repairs at stores in labor dispute

© David McNew / Reuters

(Reuters) - Weeks after Wal-Mart Stores Inc was accused of shuttering a California store to stop workers from organizing, the company said it would seek permits to rip up floors and replace plumbing lines as part of significant repairs at five stores the retailer said justified their abrupt closure.

Wal-Mart's move last month to temporarily close the stores triggered a union-backed complaint to the National Labor Relations Board that is still pending. The company says it plans to re-open the stores within six months.

In the complaint, the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union accused Wal-Mart of using plumbing problems as an excuse to close a store in Pico Rivera, California, in retaliation against workers who have been active in attempts to organize for better pay and benefits. The other four stores were included as cover, the union said.

Wal-Mart, which has denied the claim, said on Friday that it would begin requesting permits for the extensive work it says is needed at the stores, which include locations in Florida, Texas and Oklahoma. The construction will include installation of new sanitary plumbing lines, replacing ripped-up floor slabs and new refrigeration equipment. It also plans some upgrades, such as new layouts for the meat and dairy sections, in line with company-wide efforts to update its stores.

Wal-Mart said it decided to pay severance to the part-time workers among the 2,200 employees affected by the closings. Under normal policy only full-time workers are eligible.

"Given the unique circumstances of the temporary closures, we continue to focus on our associates and have added benefits and made a series of policy exceptions," said company spokesman Lorenzo Lopez.

Lopez said more than half of the workers who applied for transfers to other stores had received them.

The UFCW, which is seeking injunctive relief to have employees reinstated or transferred without loss of pay, accused Wal-Mart on Friday of not granting transfers to workers who have been outspoken in pressing for better conditions.

"Walmart is grasping at straws to cover up the retaliatory nature of the store closures," said UFCW spokesman Marc Goumbri.

Lopez said all workers would continue to receive pay and benefits through June 19 and that transfer opportunities are still becoming available.

Wal-Mart has said each of the five locations had more than 100 plumbing problems over the last two years, the most among its 5,000-plus U.S. stores.

(Reporting by Nathan Layne; Editing by Ted Botha and Dan Grebler)