Chicago Warehouse Workers Navigate Maze of Contractors
by Jane Slaughter
November 11, 2011
Heading down I-55 or I-80 southwest of Chicago, a
driver passes mile after mile of anonymous, windowless
warehouses. Each year a trillion dollars worth of goods
moves through the area, one of the bigger nodes in the
global distribution network of consumer products.
Computers, air conditioners, vacuum cleaners, Halloween
costumes arrive at West Coast ports on ships from Asia,
are loaded onto trains, and chug to the City of Big
Shoulders, where all six Class 1 railroads meet.
Workers offload the goods, which are piled onto trucks
or other trains and travel to the big boxes.
In between, those goods spend some time in a warehouse.
"If it wasn’t for us, none of the stuff you have in
your house would be in your house," says Monica
Morales, a former worker at a warehouse for Bissell,
the vacuum cleaner maker. "There’s not many items that
we don’t touch."
Morales was fired in November 2009, along with 70 co-
workers, a week after they filed charges against their
employer, the contractor Maersk Logistics, for
violations of minimum wage, civil rights, and labor
laws and told management they had formed a union.
She is a member of Warehouse Workers for Justice, a
worker center affiliated with the United Electrical
Workers (UE). WWJ unites workers from across the
dizzying array of contractors that operate in the
warehouses and helps them fight for their rights with
lawsuits, media pressure, and in-plant actions.
On October 15, with support from WWJ, UE launched an
organizing committee, pulling together 50 leaders from
different shops as a first step toward forming a union
among the 150,000 warehouse workers in the area.
The dues-paying membership organization elected a
steering committee and video-conferenced with warehouse
workers in New Jersey and the Inland Empire in
California (see box) who were having similar meetings
at the same time.
Workers’ issues are abundant and so are their
The big retailers like Walmart often hire logistics
companies that manage the warehouses, and those
companies often staff through temp agencies.
A survey WWJ conducted with university researchers
found 63 percent of warehouse workers in Will County,
west of Chicago, are employed by temp agencies. There
are 100 temp agencies in that county alone, both big
national companies like Staffmark and small ones that
are locally owned.
"This is where our economy is headed," said UE
International Rep Mark Meinster. "We’re seeing this
type of temporary employment in manufacturing,
hospitality, health care, even retail. Unions need to
organize temp workers if we’re going to build power in
A fifth of the workers surveyed had been working as a
temp for more than a year. Forty-four percent had
worked in two or more warehouses in the last year,
unable to land a "direct-hire" job.
The median wage for the temps surveyed was $9 an hour,
while direct-hire employees’ was $12.48. Almost no temp
workers had sick days, vacation, or health insurance. A
quarter of all warehouse workers received government
benefits of some sort.
A quarter of the workers were women, and more than a
third were under 26 years old. Nearly half were African
American and more than a third Latino.
A big issue is piecework, where workers are paid by the
shipping container. Depending on the contents, a team
of two workers might take a few hours or a whole shift
to unload a container, sometimes leaving them with less
than minimum wage.
Though the contracting-out system poses an organizing
challenge, Meinster says it can be overcome. "Much in
the way the SEIU’s Justice for Janitors campaign
targeted building owners who had the real power," he
said, "we are targeting the large retailers who benefit
from the labor abuse in their supply chains."
In its organizing thus far, WWJ has found enough
stability in the workforce to form an organization that
can win gains. It is aided by an unusual Illinois law
that gives some rights to temp workers. The law spells
out temp companies’ obligations to inform workers of
their pay and job duties and specifies their right to a
secure, heated waiting area, with a restroom.
Most important, the law makes not only the temp agency
but also its client company responsible for following
the law. Workers can file a complaint against Walmart
or Home Depot for violations that happen in their
"Instead of simply filing a lawsuit, workers will march
on the boss or do press conferences to expose these
abuses," said Meinster.
In one large warehouse that distributes foods to ethnic
grocery stores, 10 Latino workers alleged they were
fired based on their national origin. With assistance
from WWJ, workers signed petitions and organized
protests against management.
WWJ organized a large delegation of Chicago Latino
community leaders to visit the plant and warn
management that discrimination against Latino workers
would bring on a boycott of the company’s products. The
workers were rehired.
At a warehouse that shipped Cadbury candy, WWJ got
complaints from workers about swastikas and KKK signs
in the bathrooms and break areas. They said managers
for the temp company that ran the warehouse sexually
harassed women workers and discriminated against Blacks
and Latinos for promotions.
Workers went to management repeatedly about the
graffiti and old, unsafe forklifts, but supervisors
turned a deaf ear.
WWJ helped workers organize a committee that circulated
petitions and carried out marches on the boss. They
filed suit and went public with their claims, garnering
media attention. Cadbury’s parent company, the
multinational Kraft Foods, intervened, firing managers,
scrubbing the graffitti, and addressing safety issues.
The discrimination cases are pending at the Equal
Employment Opportunity Commission.
On October 18 WWJ filed a class-action suit against
Nexus Employment Solutions, the temp agency at a Tyson
warehouse. Workers allege they were required to work
without pay for almost an hour before being allowed to
clock in. "If we didn’t show up 45 minutes early, they
wouldn’t let us work," said Nancy Price, who worked for
Nexus for 10 months.
EVERY DAY A RACE
WWJ member Uylonda Dickerson lost her job at a Walmart
warehouse six months ago. "This job was actually like a
race," she said. She and a partner, who were paid by
the piece, would pull up a cart to a trailer door and
unload, by hand, whatever items were inside, from
swimming pools to patio sets.
They then pulled the cart, by hand, to the other side
of the warehouse, where the items were loaded onto
another trailer bound for Walmart stores. "Then you go
back and do it all over again," Dickerson said.
Now Dickerson is a regular at WWJ rallies and has gone
door to door to recruit. She says at meetings, "we talk
amongst ourselves to see what we can do better. We make
each other feel good, because we might be down and out.
If you can go sit down and talk with strangers that
feel like family to you, that makes a big difference."
Railroad Van Drivers Organize
UE scored a victory among another category of workers
in the sprawling intermodal facilities around Chicago:
those who drive the vans that shuttle railroad
employees from yard to yard and from trains to hotels.
Twenty years ago this was a union railroad job at $20
an hour. Today it’s contracted out to a company called
Renzenberger, and pay started at minimum wage with no
paid days off-- until the union arrived.
The railroads haul goods from West Coast ports to
Chicago for big retailers like Target and Walmart. The
retailers’ relentless squeeze for cost reductions led
the railroads to contract out to a bottom-feeder like
Much of the workforce is on call 24 hours a day, and
many work second jobs, creating a safety issue for
sleep-deprived drivers and their passengers.
Last year the 160 Chicago-area Renzenberger workers at
the Burlington Northern Santa Fe voted for the UE by a
James Hill, president of the new local, says they won a
dollar an hour raise over three years-- but he’ll still
be making only $11.25.
The Steelworkers have won a Renzenberger unit in
Pennsylvania, and UE is organizing in California, Ohio,
and New Jersey. The company has thrown a wrench in
those plans by bringing in National Production Workers
Union Local 707, an outfit known for signing sweetheart
deals with employers that want to keep workers from
forming legitimate unions.
California Raids, Fines Walmart Warehouse
The Change to Win labor federation is sponsoring a
group called Warehouse Workers United to organize in a
similar complex of warehouses in California’s "Inland
Empire" east of Los Angeles.
Their organizing received a boost October 12 when the
state labor commissioner raided a Schneider Logistics
facility that moves stock for Walmart. Schneider is one
of the country’s largest shipping and warehousing
firms, and this warehouse is the most important Walmart
facility in Southern California.
Guadalupe Palma of WWU said, "This raid will force the
entire logistics industry to take notice."
Two subcontractors were issued citations for violating
labor law, such as failing to provide workers with wage
statements or keep wage and hour records. False pay
records were found. One company was fined $499,000.
Labor Commissioner Julie Su said the state would assess
the companies for "all wages owed to the workers."
Everardo Carrillo said his subcontractor "didn’t
respect our hours or shifts. They would tell you there
is no set schedule." He would be told to arrive at 5
a.m. and then wait until 8 a.m to start. Workers were
not paid for waiting time, which is illegal, and wage-
cheating was common.
Carrillo said workers were paid by the container they
unloaded. "They [management] didn’t care if you killed
yourself working there," he said. "It didn’t matter the
size of the boxes that you had to move. You had to move
it however you could do it."
Didn’t the company provide forklifts? "They said, ‘If
we help you with the forklift, it’s like we’re giving
you money for free,’" Carrillo said.
Warehouse Workers United said workers at the Schneider
warehouse function in temperatures sometimes over 100
degrees, for up to 15 hours a day, often seven days a
On October 18 the group announced a federal class
action suit against Schneider and the two
subcontractors, alleging they regularly pay less than
minimum wage, deny overtime pay, and have fired workers
who challenged the vagueness of their checks.
PortsideLabor aims to provide material of interest to
people on the left that will help them to interpret the
world and to change it.
Submit via email: [log in to unmask]
Submit via the Web: http://portside.org/submittous3
Frequently asked questions: http://portside.org/faq
PS Labor Archives: http://portside.org/archive
Contribute to Portside: https://portside.org/donate