Attorneys representing workers in Wal-Mart warehouses today announced the filing of a motion to add the retail giant as a defendant in an ongoing federal wage theft lawsuit. If successful, the motion would advance efforts by organized labor to punish Wal-Mart for alleged rampant abuses, and to establish its responsibility for the actions of its contractors and subcontractors in California and elsewhere.
Lawyers say the wage theft class action could involve as many as 1,800 workers in Southern California’s Inland Empire (its class action status has been provisionally certified for a smaller group). Workers from three warehouses brought charges to the California Department of Labor Standards enforcement last year. Workers say that they exclusively move goods for Wal-Mart; each of the subcontractors that hired them was employed by the Wal-Mart contractor Schneider Logistics.
According to workers, one of those subcontractors, Rogers-Premier, responded to a worker-prompted state investigation by moving to lay off all of its employees in one of the warehouses. With support from Warehouse Workers United, a project of the union federation Change to Win, workers sought, and won, a rare judicial restraining order enjoining the layoffs. That federal district court injunction, and two others against the warehouse companies, are currently on appeal.
The court also found Schneider to be a “joint employer” with responsibility for working conditions, allowing it to be named as a defendant in a suit filed in October 2011 alleging rampant wage theft and retaliation. In July, a Change to Win attorney called this “a first step in breaking down this fissured industry.” A June report from the National Employment Law Project found that Wal-Mart “is intimately involved in the daily operations of the Schneider operations, which solely move Wal-Mart goods”; Wal-Mart responded in July that it “does not have any direct contract with Schneider’s subcontractors.”
WWU has been hoping for months that the discovery phase of the lawsuit would yield enough evidence to also have Wal-Mart itself named as a defendant. Attorneys say that’s now happened. The motion will be heard in court on January 7, 2013. Attorneys argue for including Wal-Mart as a defendant based on six legal theories, including that Wal-Mart controls the means of production and determines the terms and conditions of employment; that contractors are acting as Wal-Mart’s agent; that Wal-Mart is a co-conspirator; that Wal-Mart has been negligent; and that Wal-Mart has committed unfair business practices.