Wal-Mart Is Under Pressure to Fix Its Crime Problemby
United Food and Commercial Workers launch TV ad campaign
Union cites Bloomberg Businessweek violent-crime investigation
Labor activists who pushed Wal-Mart Stores Inc. to raise its minimum wage have a new target in their sights. They’re now pressuring the mega-retailer to improve security at its stores and parking lots around the country.
Making Change at Wal-Mart, a labor group backed by the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union, will start running television ads this week in four media markets and has been handing out fliers to customers in 20 cities. The demands follow an investigation by Bloomberg Businessweek that found widespread crime at the Bentonville, Arkansas, retail giant.
The union’s organizers also have met with city and local officials in Tampa, Florida; Tulsa, Oklahoma; Dallas and the Minneapolis area, encouraging them to declare Wal-Mart a public nuisance in hopes of pressuring the company to improve security.
The push comes after a Bloomberg analysis of police reports from dozens of stores found the number of petty crimes committed on Wal-Mart properties this year was probably in the hundreds of thousands and a violent crime occurs at one of its stores, on average, at least once a day. There were significantly more incidents at Wal-Mart than at rival Target Corp. in the cities where Bloomberg obtained data.
That has put a strain on police departments in cities large and small. While Wal-Mart says it is working to address the problem, the labor group argues the company should be doing more. It’s demanding the retailer hire additional off-duty police officers and private security guards. And the union wants stores to make employees more visible in the shopping aisles to deter theft.
“They haven’t been investing in the proper security,” said Randy Parraz, a national campaign director for Making Change at Wal-Mart. “They are pinching and squeezing the taxpayers for something the company should be paying for. It isn’t like this is a company operating in the red.”
Wal-Mart says it takes the issue seriously and is working to fix it. To try to deter shoplifters, the company has been moving more employees to the sales floor and store exits, where some of them spot-check receipts. It’s also stationing employees at self-checkout areas, installing eye-level security monitors in high-theft areas and using data analytics to detect fraudulent returns.
To cut down on calls to police, Wal-Mart has been rolling out a program that allows first-time offenders caught stealing merchandise below a certain value to avoid arrest if they agree to go through a theft-prevention program. At some higher-crime stores, the company is also hiring off-duty police and private security officers.
Since making these changes this year, Wal-Mart calls to police have dropped an average of 35 percent nationwide, the company said.
“We are continuing our increased outreach to law enforcement across the country as part of our ongoing commitment to meet our customers’ and associates’ expectations for a safe shopping experience,” said Wal-Mart spokesman Blake Jackson. “The importance of this issue is recognized at the highest levels of the company, and we are investing in people and technology.”
Police say the retailer isn’t going far enough in the face of continuing violent crimes. In recent months an autistic boy was abducted from a Wal-Mart in upstate New York, a man was beaten with his own walker at a store in Florida and a woman was stabbed to death by her daughter in a Wal-Mart parking lot in Alabama. Last month a good Samaritan was shot and killed while trying to stop a woman from being beaten in a Wal-Mart parking lot in San Antonio, Texas. This was eerily similar to an incident less than two months earlier in Shawnee, Kansas: Two suspected carjackers were beating a woman, with a baby, in broad daylight. They then shot and severely injured a man who came to the woman’s aid.
As America’s largest private employer, Wal-Mart has a responsibility to its more than 1 million workers to provide them a safe working environment, Parraz said. Often they are on the front lines of securing the store and have been shot, stabbed and punched trying to stop shoplifters during the past year. This week, a man stealing a television used a stun gun on an employee who asked to see his receipt as he exited the store. Other workers have said they worry about their safety in the parking lots while rounding up shopping carts or walking to or from their cars.
Parraz questioned the recent Wal-Mart push to put more employees at exits to check receipts. The reassignments, intended to deter theft, have some employees worried they’ll find themselves in confrontations with shoplifters that could turn violent. Those employees are paid some of the lowest wages in the store. Instead, he says Wal-Mart should hire trained security staff to handle that job.
Wal-Mart’s crime problem also is spilling into its efforts to open new stores. In Mission City, Kansas, one resident after another cited statistics in the Bloomberg Businessweek article at a city council meeting, in front of a Wal-Mart representative.
“The Mission police will be subsidizing their security,” one man told the council members, holding a printout of the article.
“The police presence, who is paying for that?” a woman asked. “You’re robbing the schools. You’re robbing the streets.”
In Bossier City, Louisiana, citizens voiced similar concerns a few weeks later at a city council meeting. And in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, city councilor Melissa Mazzeo said crime is one of the reasons she is fighting Wal-Mart’s plan to open a new store.
“It is going to be happening in people’s backyards,” she said. “When you are dealing with a situation like this, which will have such a big impact, you have to think not just of the good things but some of the bad things and how you are going to tackle it.”