Earlier this year, Wal-Mart had some “plumbing” problems.
As regular readers might recall, the retailer shuttered five geographically distinct locations across the country citing intractable and persistent “clogs and leaks.”
The story gave birth to a variety of conspiracy theories including the contention that the closures were part and parcel of a plan to use the locations as internment camps in connection with the US SpecOps command’s Jade Helm 15 drills.
Another plausible explanation was that the closures were connected to the company’s desperate attempt to preserve margins in the wake of what now looks like an ill-advised decision to implement an across-the-board wage hike. Raising wages for the retailer’s lowest-paid associates led directly to a mad scramble aimed at extracting more savings from suppliers and ultimately resulted in a stunning guidance cut in October that sent the company’s shares plunging. Predictably, the pay raises also led to layoffs in Bentonville and fewer hours for employees. The store closures, we suggested back in April, could simply be another attempt to offset the cost of the wage hikes.
Finally, some contended that at least one location may have been closed for its connection to organized labor. As we documented extensively in “Did WalMart Close A California Store To Punish Employees Who Protested Wages And Working Conditions?,” the Pico Rivera, California store had been a hotbed for wage and labor protests over the years. It was among the locations that were closed on short notice.
First, a little background.
When we began to look into each of the locations marked on the map shown above, we came across something rather interesting involving the Pico Rivera, CA store. As it turns out, it’s been the site of wage and working condition protests on a number of occasions, the most recent of which was late last year.
Almost exactly one year prior to the latest picket, the Pico Rivera store was (along with multiple other locations across the US) the site of protests alleging that the company did not pay enough to keep many of its workers from seeking government assistance to supplement their meager wages (recall that 73% of those receiving public assistance in the US come from working families).
And just a little over a year before the 2013 Black Friday protests, more than 200 workers at Pico Rivera went on strike and protested in front of the store waving signs that read “On Strike for the Freedom to Speak Out,” suggesting the company was retaliating against those who fought for better wages and working conditions.
What's especially interesting here is that one of the groups which has consistently backed protests at the Pico Rivera store is the The United Food and Commercial Workers International Union or, UFCW.
The UFCW has a history with the company. Back in 2004, when workers at the Jonquiere, Quebec location voted to join the organization, WalMart closed the store six months later noting that "you can’t take a store that is a struggling store anyway and add a bunch of people and a bunch of work rules." This case ended up before the Supreme Court in Canada and just last year, the high court ruled against the company.
So here is a WalMart location which has staged protests each and every year dating back to at least 2012, the latest of which led to two dozen arrests and these protests are backed by the same organization which was involved in a Canadian Supreme Court case against the company for closing a store where workers had agreed to adopt the UFCW as their representative.
For those who might have missed it, here's a hilarious anti-union training video that leaked online:
Now, thanks to documents produced in discovery ahead of a National Labor Relations Board hearing into OUR Walmart’s (and offshoot of UFCW) allegations of retaliation against employees who joined protests in June 2013, we have an idea of just what lengths WalMart is willing to go to when it comes to keeping an eye on potential "problem" stores and associates. The documents, provided to Bloomberg, contain some "1,000 pages of e-mails, reports, playbooks, charts, and graphs, as well as testimony from its head of labor relations at the time."
"Walmart considered OUR enough of a threat that it hired an intelligence-gathering service from Lockheed Martin, contacted the FBI, staffed up its labor hotline, ranked stores by labor activity, and kept eyes on employees (and activists) prominent in the group," Bloomberg reports. Here's more:
During October 2012, OUR Walmart members and supporters began a series of walkouts and protests across the country to increase pressure on the retailer before the holiday shopping season. The group called a National Day of Action for Oct. 10 and sent a few people to Bentonville, where Walmart executives were meeting with Wall Street analysts. Two hundred calls to the labor hotline from almost as many stores were logged around that time.
Some calls betrayed the paranoia of beleaguered managers.
2:30 p.m., Store 5880 in Fairfax, Va.: “A customer began talking to a cashier about the strikes at Walmart this week, and the cashier responded that maybe she should go on strike. AM [assistant manager] feels the cashier was joking when she made the comment.”
4:19 p.m., Store 3893 in Zion, Ill.: “Three associates made comments surrounding the ‘strikes’ in other stores to Grocery ZMS [zone merchandising supervisor]. Grocery ZMS shared his opinion but didn’t state our philosophy. He will do so the next time the associates are at work.”
The last call in the log, on Oct. 15, came from Yuma, Ariz.: “An associate asked what would happen to associates if they walked out on Black Friday.”
Walmart was watching Colby Harris. He was a full-time employee in the produce department in Store 471 in Lancaster, Texas. He joined protests in California, picketed stores in Dallas, and showed up in Bentonville for the analysts’ meeting. In November 2012, he said he had given more than 45 interviews to journalists. “People want to hear from us,” he said.
On Oct. 17, Casey, the labor relations executive, sent an e-mail to one of her senior staff: “Colby Harris, what’s his story?” Casey said in her testimony that she asked about Harris because he had appeared in press accounts of the walkouts, and Walmart’s media relations group asked her for information about him. She also said that Walmart tracked associates “who may be engaged in the demonstrations and strikes to figure out who was working and who wasn’t.”
And here’s where the story gets particularly unnerving:
As momentum for the Black Friday protests was building, the Delta team raced to respond. The Black Friday Labor Relations Team Daily Meeting had its own acronym: the BFLRTDM. An e-mail on Oct. 24 from a member of the labor relations team to four executives had the subject line: “Blitz Planning (Re-visited due to new information).” The document they updated—the Labor Relations Blitz/Black Friday 2012 Plan—noted some of the latest tactics they expected from OUR Walmart: “work stoppages, mic checks, 1 post of a human chain, social media calls for boycotts and Sponsor a Striker for Black Friday food card program.” It also included this request to Walmart’s Analytical Research Center: “When does Lockheed provide more analysts?”
The Analytical Research Center, or ARC, is part of Walmart’s global security division. Ken Senser, a former FBI officer, oversees the entire group. The executive responsible for ARC was Steve Dozier, according to Casey’s testimony. He was director of the Arkansas State Police before he joined Walmart in 2007. “When we received word of potential strikes and disruptive activity on Black Friday 2012, that’s when we started to ask the ARC to work with us,” Casey said during her testimony. “ARC had contracted with Lockheed leading up to Black Friday to help source open social media sites.”
Lockheed Martin is one of the biggest defense contractors in the world. Although it’s best known for making fighter jets and missile systems, it also has an information technology division that offers cybersecurity and data analytics services. Tucked into that is a little-known operation called LM Wisdom, which has been around since 2011. LM Wisdom is described on Lockheed’s website as a tool “that monitors and analyzes rapidly changing open source intelligence data … [that] has the power to incite organized movements, riots and sway political outcomes.” A brochure depicts yellow tape with “crime scene” on it, an armored SWAT truck, and a word cloud with “MAFIA” in huge type.
In mid-April 2013, Walmart executives began hearing about plans for “Ride for Respect,” a bus caravan that would arrive in Bentonville during the weeklong annual shareholder meeting in June. About 14,000 people—hand-picked associates, managers, shareholders, investors, the Walton family—would be in town. Elton John was performing. It was a time of particularly uncomfortable scrutiny for Walmart.
A Delta team began operations. When global security heard that members of the Occupy movement might join the protests at corporate headquarters, they began working with the FBI Joint Terrorism Task Forces.
“With some assistance from LM [Lockheed Martin] we have created the attached map to track the caravan movements and approximate participants,” Kris Russell, a risk program senior manager, wrote to colleagues on May 30. The map showed the predicted routes for five buses. By then, 96 associates had announced their intent to strike. Another 115 “uninvited guests” were expected in Bentonville.
There's much, much more in the full Bloomberg piece, but the takeaway here is that WalMart doesn't just despise union sympathizers, the retailer equates them with terrorism and indeed, the company monitors their activities at certain locations just as the government would track jihadi sleeper cells.
The FBI is involved as is one of the world's foremost defense contractors and at one point, the Bureau's Joint Terrorism Task Forces were called to the scene in a kind of nightmarish "evil corporate America meets oppressive police state" scenario.
As for OUR WalMart, they're not giving up the fight. In fact, they're adopting new and innovative strategies. This year, for instance, they decided to highlight the problems associates face feeding their families on meager wages by - starving themselves:
"This year, instead of striking, OUR Walmart staged a 15-day fast leading up to Black Friday. The hunger strike is in support of a $15-an-hour minimum wage and to highlight the problems some Walmart workers have feeding their families, Cynthia Murray, one of the founders of OUR Walmart said.
We wonder if waterboarding is coming soon to WalMart breakrooms or if perhaps a drone strike or two on a picket line will be necessary to disperse the living wage "jihad."