Save money, live better? People building Wal-Mart say they just want to get paid 

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Sliter was one of 12 suppliers and subcontractors to file a lien on Wal-Mart’s Hutton Ranch Plaza property in 2010, according to the Flathead County Clerk and Recorder’s Office.

Sliter says he was forced to haggle with the Henry Carlson Company over who should pay for brooms, lumber and an $1,800 finance charge, among other things. Sliter says he thought about suing but worried he’d be outgunned. He settled for $19,000. “It’s kind of like being bullied,” he says. “I really resent it.”

‘The world’s forced into this Wal-Mart society’

Art Crum’s workshop is set atop a ramshackle property just over the Buckhouse Bridge from Wal-Mart’s Highway 93 South Supercenter, in Missoula. The owner of Crum Construction, he sits beside a wood stove in his cold workshop on a recent winter day. The shop smells like burning wood and motor oil and is decorated with posters of bronzed women in pastel-colored bikinis.

Crum is 75. His father founded the family business in 1951. Art started working for it at 16. He took time out in the late ’50s to become an airplane navigator. He went on to fly with the Air National Guard for seven years, working for Crum Construction during the week.

“We’ve never had more than what we could use,” he says. “I’ve raised my family and helped several other people raise their families.”

Despite his waning energy and the increasing aches and pains that come with age, Crum says, he pulled a couple of all-nighters working on Wal-Mart’s Highway 93 South project in Missoula last year. His company prepped the job site for the retailer’s expansion, dug foundation footings, lay concrete and installed storm sewers, he explains. His contract was for $411,000.

The company started the job in September of 2010, he says. His crew hurried to get it done as winter set in. Crum worked day and night driving the dump truck and front loader.

Change orders brought Crum’s bill for the job to $490,000, he says; Engineered Structures paid him about $440,000. The last check arrived in September of 2011. Crum says he repeatedly called Engineered Structures. “It was always either, ‘Not in the office,’ ‘Not available,’ ‘I’ll call you back in five minutes’…They wouldn’t respond to my email.”

click to enlarge Art Crum says during the past 60 years that his family’s done business in Missoula, it’s only twice filed a lien for failure to pay: once against a private homeowner, in 1964, and again last year—against Wal-Mart. - PHOTO BY CHAD HARDER
  • Photo by Chad Harder
  • Art Crum says during the past 60 years that his family’s done business in Missoula, it’s only twice filed a lien for failure to pay: once against a private homeowner, in 1964, and again last year—against Wal-Mart.

In October of last year, Crum filed a lien for $42,583. He’s yet to see any of that money, he says. The toughest part of not getting paid, he says, is that he hasn’t been able to pay his asphalt and plumbing suppliers. “It’s tough on your credibility and your reputation.”

Crum says that since his father founded the family business, it’s only filed one other mechanic’s lien, in 1964. The difficulty of not being paid what he thinks he was entitled to has been compounded by the slowing of the building industry, he says.

According to the Missoula Public Works Department, $99.8 million was spent in commercial and private construction in 2006. That number dropped to $89.1 million in 2007 and to $54.9 million in 2010. Last year, the trend reversed, climbing back up to $87.8 million.

Gary Linton of GTL Excavating, in Missoula, is no doubt feeling some of the pain of that trend, but he also has a more tangible antagonist. Linton filed a $49,000 lien against Wal-Mart’s Highway 93 South property last October.

“We just all feel used,” he says. “They came to town. They’re big-time. We all thought, ‘Okay, we can work. We’ll get all caught up. We were all of the same mindset. And we’re all worse off now because of it.”

Linton says that now that he’s seen firsthand how the retailer’s “always low prices” affect people who work for Wal-Mart, he’s advised his family not to shop there.

“Okay,” he says, “so we’re getting everything from China. Nothing’s being made in the U.S. anymore. And everybody goes there and buys from them. The world’s forced into this Wal-Mart society—and nobody sees the veil behind the veil.”

Damien McInnis, of Missoula’s Picasso Brothers Painting, agrees up to a point. He’s still recuperating from his losses on the Wal-Mart project, he says. He’s on a budget now. But after he settled for 29 cents on the dollar of his lien claim late last year, where did he go to buy Christmas presents?

“Wal-Mart,” he says. “They do have good prices.”

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