02.17.2011 – Walmart Foes Testify Before City Council – CRAIN’S NEW YORK BUSINESS

Walmart foes testify before City Council

Anti-Walmart advocates and ex-employees seeking to block the entry of the world’s largest retailers into New York City air allegations of widespread labor abuses.

By Benjamin J. Spencer
February 17, 2011 3:49 p.m

Updated: February 17, 2011 6:15 p.m

Lawyers, advocates and former Walmart employees testified against the potential entry of the mega-retailer into the five boroughs before three committees of the City Council Thursday. As expected, their testimony was almost unanimously critical of the Bentonville, Ark.-based company’s conduct.

Several witnesses presented testimony, based on workers’ lawsuits, of what they charged were widespread labor abuses built into Walmart’s corporate structure. The allegations spanned the country and ranged from Walmart forcing employees to work extra hours with no pay, to repeated instances of management retribution against workers who tried to unionize.

The comments of Council members themselves on Walmart also skewed negative, with the exception of Queens Councilman Eric Ulrich, who said he supported the retailer’s entry into the city to combat rampant unemployment in his district.

“In this country, you’re innocent until you’re proven guilty,” said Mr. Ulrich, referring to various civil action suits pending against Walmart, many of which allege labor, civil rights and human rights violations on a company-wide scale.

Former Walmart grocery manager Sandra Carpenter said when she attempted to educate “immigrant employees not familiar with the rights that we are supposed to have in this country,” the managers at her store engaged in retribution by forcing her to work off the clock for up to two hours a day. She estimates she lost more than $4,000 in overtime payments.

Attorney Claude Leblanc, who represents 190 Walmart workers in Jonquiere, Quebec, said that when his clients attempted to unionize, Walmart shut the store down and fired everyone.

“This kind of closure, within the law of the province of Quebec, is illegal,” said Mr. Leblanc, whose clients won damages from the retailer.

The comments of City Council members themselves on Walmart also skewed overwhelmingly negative.

“No one would argue with the desire to seek out lower prices,” said Deborah Rose, Council chair of the Committee on Civil Rights. “But often, a store’s low prices come with a high price for workers.”

“If you don’t adhere to the standards of this city, you will not reap its benefits,” added Julissa Fererras, chair of the Committee on Women’s Issues for the Council.

But Mr. Ulrich asserted that it was “not the government’s job” to block private enterprise.

“People need jobs,” said Mr. Ulrich, adding that if Walmart were allowed into his district, people would be “lined up around the block” with applications.

For the second hearing in a row, Walmart refused to send representatives to address the Council. Instead they issued a statement while hearings were still underway, rebutting many of the allegations of the panels.

In a press statement titled “Setting the Record Straight on Today’s City Council Meeting,” the company specifically countered the claim made by Councilman Charles Barron of Brooklyn, among others, that Walmart’s entry into New York would devastate the local economy by driving small business away and lowering the area’s wages and benefits.

The company cited a 2005 paper by economist Jason Furman, now an adviser to the Obama administration, that concluded “the company itself does not appear to pay lower wages or benefits than similar companies, or to cause substantially lower wages in the retail sector.”

The release also countered allegations of wage theft and other labor abuses.

Thursday’s hearing was the second City Council meeting in a month to deal with the controversy over Walmart’s interest in New York City locations such as Queens’ Jamaica Bay and Willet’s Point.