Walmart is risking its reputation on efforts to dismantle laws that protect low-wage employees.
New leaders are shaking up an existing joint venture with a massive low-wage janitorial contractor.
The retail giant is under a federal investigation over potential violations of workers’ rights to unionize, the Reuters news agency reported in late December.
Walmart denied any wrongdoing, and its employees claim the investigation may be connected to the rights investigation.
The leaked documents revealed that Walmart was actively working to dismantle labor laws protecting Walmart’s 40,000-plus vendors in the janitorial industry.
The documents published by Reuters show that a new public company Walmart is launching soon could have concerns about the programs that allow workers to organize.
Chang Lee, who will lead the new entity, approached a law firm for an opinion that could affect Walmart’s relationship with Integrity Staffing Solutions, a JV with a massive janitorial company.
The law firm suggested that Walmart launch an investigation to see if the JV was breaking labor laws.
The Jan. 6 letter said that Integrity is “not following the law,” but the firm said it cannot make recommendations because it hasn’t seen the evidence.
Both Walmart and Integrity Staffing Solutions declined to comment. But both insist they did nothing wrong.
Spokeswoman Candice Treseder said the allegations of labor law violations “are entirely false.”
Steve Brink, Integrity’s chief operating officer, said “these baseless claims are not related to our business, have no merit and are intended to attack the integrity of our company and our JV.”
Threatening to fire workers
Janitors and janitorial workers at Walmart said they are under pressure from Walmart to pay up when it comes to union activity.
Workers are threatened with losing their jobs if they step out of line, they said.
“You can’t do anything without Walmart’s permission,” said one worker who spoke to CNN. “If you try to use anything of value, you will be terminated.”
Workers are required to sign temporary contracts that include a clause prohibiting them from showing up for work if there’s a question as to whether the company is violating the state labor laws. Workers can’t request a dismissal, they said.
One janitor told CNN that workers from around the state turned out in November for a rally at Walmart’s headquarters in Bentonville, Arkansas, against the janitorial company.
“People were arrested,” she said. “They were arrested for not knowing they were unlawful, not knowing the conditions in the store and everybody was so agitated.”
CNN reached out to officials with the Bentonville, Arkansas, police for comment. An official told CNN the department would not comment.
Other worker rights groups told CNN about other abuse.
“We have heard stories about workers being threatened,” said Muy Blue, the executive director of Fair Food Watch, which is working to unionize Walmart janitors in California.
Bert Renfro, a food safety activist with the Food Labor Organizing Committee (FLOC), said that Walmart janitors in his home state of New York were “given only two hours pay to clear trash from the store or they would be fired.”
Retail workers’ rights groups say the janitorial industry is so strict that it discriminates against some former Walmart workers.
“Janitors, predominantly women of color, are forced to sign up to work at Walmart because they can’t find any other job,” said Charles Elson, director of the University of Delaware’s Center for Corporate Governance.
Janitors often live in terrible conditions without union protection, he said. “Tenants keep them hostage, overcharging them for rent,” he said.
Consumer activist groups have been in talks with the workers. But many workers told CNN they wanted an independent organization such as SNUG, a group that focuses on consumer protections, to help organize.