Walking out on Wal-Mart

September 20, 2012

Nicole Colson reports on a walkout by workers at Wal-Mart distribution warehouses--and the support they are getting from Chicago teachers and labor activists.

WAL-MART WAREHOUSE distribution workers in southern California and Illinois are on strike, demanding the respect they deserve from the corporate giant.

The walkout by roughly 30 employees in Elwood, Ill., about an hour's drive southwest of Chicago, came just days after a similar-sized group struck in Mira Loma, Calif.

Although the mega-retailer doesn't directly employ them, the workers and activists who support them say blame for dismal working conditions, intimidation and harassment falls squarely on the shoulders of Wal-Mart and its drive to cut costs by squeezing workers to the breaking point.

In Illinois, the workers are employed by Wal-Mart contractor Schneider Logistics, which in turn uses a payroll contractor called RoadlinkWorkforce Solutions to run the warehouse. On September 13, according to the group Warehouse Workers for Justice (WWJ)--a project of the United Electrical Workers (UE) union which has lent support to the non-union employees--the workers filed a federal lawsuit against Roadlink for non-payment of wages and overtime, and paying less than the minimum wage.

Chicago teachers and supporters march in solidarity with Wal-Mart warehouse workers in Elwood, Ill.
Chicago teachers and supporters march in solidarity with Wal-Mart warehouse workers in Elwood, Ill. (Carole Ramsden | SW)

"I worked for Roadlink Workforce Solutions in the Wal-Mart warehouse," worker Vincent Hoffmann explained in a press release. "They had us working 10 or more hours a day lifting heavy boxes, but then didn't pay me the overtime that I had worked so hard for. It's hard enough trying to make ends meet and then they cheat us out of what we earned."

Organizers say the workers are routinely forced to lift boxes weighing 250 pounds or more, and that heat topping 100 degrees in the summer is common in the facility and trucks.

Striking Wal-Mart workers in California say they face similarly unsafe conditions. Supported by the California-based Warehouse Workers United, they recently completed a 50-mile, six-day walk from Riverside to downtown Los Angeles to bring awareness of the poor working conditions they face.

AFTER ELWOOD workers filed their lawsuit, they say that company intimidation and retaliation escalated. Phillip Bailey, a worker in Elwood, told the Huffington Post that after he and his coworkers delivered a petition to Roadlink that called for a living wage and regular hours, supervisors told the group they were temporarily suspended. That provoked the walkout on September 15--three days after the Southern California workers struck.

Bailey, who earns $10 an hour loading boxes, told the Huffington Post: "They retaliated against us for delivering the petition. People are sick of taking it--the constant speed-ups, never knowing when you'll go home from work...My major complaint is we don't know when we're going to leave."

Leah Fried, a spokesperson for Warehouse Workers for Justice, told the Huffington Post that many of the strikers are "perm-temps"--long-term "temporary" employees earning next to minimum wage. They lack regular work schedules and have few, if any, benefits. "They're really frustrated. Any time they speak out, there's retaliation," Fried said.

Striking Elwood warehouse worker Eric Skoglund explained in a press release, "We are on strike to protest violations of our rights. We are tired of retaliation and threats every time we speak up about unsafe working conditions and other abuses."

The Elwood distribution center is a massive hub for Wal-Mart and part of a growing number of distribution centers in the Chicago area that cater to big-box retailers such as Wal-Mart and Home Depot. According to WWJ, the Chicago area is now home to half a billion square feet of warehouse space--one of the largest concentrations of such space on the planet--and 150,000 warehouse employees. According to the group:

Logistics Park Chicago, a large intermodal terminal in Elwood, Ill., was built with over $150 million in public funds. A designated foreign trade zone, companies who ship there pay discounted duty fees. Retailers and consumer products manufacturers, such as Wal-Mart and Bissell, have set up import processing warehouses within the intermodal complex.

For its part, Wal-Mart claims to hold its contractors to acceptable standards when it comes to pay and safety conditions--but the world's largest retailer has a huge impact on setting conditions for warehouse workers across the entire industry by demanding low labor costs and fast-paced production. It's a race to the bottom, and workers are the losers.

WAL-MART spokesman Dan Fogleman blamed the two strikes on--what else?--meddling unions. "This isn't really about Wal-Mart at all," Fogleman complained to the Huffington Post, adding that the warehouse worker groups "are both union-funded, union-backed organizations. Their focus is growing union membership, which yields more revenue and political clout."

While Fogelman's characterization of unions as "outside agitators" is dead wrong, he's right to suggest that solidarity has played a key role.

The Elwood workers say the recent strike by the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) and its example of labor and community solidarity inspired them to take on Wal-Mart. On the day they walked out, the Elwood workers announced their strike at a mass rally in Chicago in support of the teachers, receiving an enthusiastic welcome from the crowd.

On September 18, members of the CTU, WWJ, Making Change at Wal-Mart, Stand Up Chicago, United Food and Commercial Workers Local 881, OUR Wal-Mart, Chicago Jobs With Justice, the Service Employees International Union, Action Now, UE and others teamed up to support the striking warehouse workers and send a message to Wal-Mart to keep its hands off our schools.

The Walton Family Foundation--a project of Wal-Mart's billionaire owners--has funneled hundreds of millions of dollars to corporate "education reform" initiatives, including groups like the pro-privatization Alliance for School Choice.

In a statement, the CTU declared that it "stands in solidarity with striking warehouse workers in Illinois and California who are fighting for their right to safe working conditions. As educators, we also protest the role of the Walton Family Fund in financing efforts to privatize public education and increase the number of charter schools."

After meeting at Simeon Career Academy on Chicago's South Side, strikers and supporters marched to a Wal-Mart store, where they chanted, "One, two, three, four, no one should be working poor. Five, six, seven, eight, come on Wal-Mart, get it straight!"

Striker Mike Compton explained the conditions that sparked the walkout to the crowd:

I've witnessed one of our employees get his leg cut on a T-rack--it's a big jagged metal pallet skid. We've worked with trucks that have been fumigated--it says so in the trailer--and you have to ask six, seven times to get a face mask. When we ask for shin guards, we don't get them. The trucks are very dusty. They're dirty, they're dark--one little light. [It's] 120 degrees in those trucks a lot of times. The turnover rate is so bad [that] if you've been there two months, you're a veteran...

All they do is push us to work harder, work harder, work harder, with no regard for our safety.

Though small in numbers, these workers are taking an important stand in beating back the drive to the bottom. In the coming days and weeks, solidarity from other unions and the public will be key to winning fair wages and working conditions--and sending a message to Wal-Mart that its workers deserve better.

Carlos Enriquez contributed to this article.

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