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October 2012, Week 1

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Strike Supporters Shut Down Illinois Walmart Warehouse

Micah Uetricht 

October 2, 2012

Labor Notes

http://labornotes.org/print/2012/10/strike-supporters-shut-down-illinois-walmart-warehouse

Six hundred people blocked a Walmart warehouse in
Elwood, Illinois, yesterday to protest wage theft and
retaliation against striking workers. Seventeen were
arrested. 

The goal was to shine light on an enormous but hidden
workforce of warehouse employees toiling to move
Walmart's famously cheap products throughout the
country. Community and labor supporters from the
Chicago area joined the 30 strikers, who walked off the
job in an unfair labor practice strike September 15.
They are members of the Warehouse Workers Organizing
Committee.

Seventeen religious, labor, and community leaders were
arrested at the warehouse entrance--closed for the day
in anticipation of the action.

Coming on the heels of California warehouse workers'
return to work after a two-week strike, things seem to
be heating up among workers in Walmart's supply chain.
Miles of Warehouses

Driving southwest from Chicago on I-55 to Elwood, the
scenery shifts quickly from dense cityscape to massive,
nondescript, windowless warehouses. Unorganized convoys
of semi-trucks make up the lion's share of traffic in
both directions. At an exit, a backup of big rigs
waiting to enter the highway can be seen for more than
two miles.

The existence of these massive distribution centers for
multinational retailers subcontracted through multiple
layers is usually unknown to consumers and even to the
residents near the warehouse--and workers say companies
want it that way.

"They hide behind the people they have subcontracted,"
says Mike Compton, who is out on strike. "They get to
pass blame when they have problems."

Workers and supporters rallied at a park near the
warehouse, with a wide swath of unions and community
groups present, including the Chicago Teachers Union,
Steelworkers, Service Employees, Food and Commercial
Workers (UFCW), Workers United, Action Now, Arise
Chicago, Latino Union, Stand Up! Chicago, Jobs with
Justice, ROC Chicago, and the Chicago Workers
Collaborative.

At the rally--surely the largest in Elwood
history--workers told of backbreaking work for little
pay, temperatures that oscillate between sweltering
heat and bitter cold, management retaliation, and
gender discrimination.

Yolanda Dickerson, who had worked in a warehouse for
two years, says she "was sexually harassed on a regular
basis," recounting an incident of being locked in a
trailer by male co-workers. After Dickerson reported
the incident, she says management did nothing. WWJ says
such reports are common.

Compton says "there's no such thing as a raise in
there," and describes the turnover rate as "unreal," a
result of the brutality of the work and the callousness
of managers.

"[Management] has no regard for our lives outside the
warehouse," he says.

Daniel Meadows, a striker who had been at the warehouse
since January and in the industry for six years, felt
similarly. As the crowd marched toward the warehouse
gates, he explained the work's effects.

"You literally can't do anything after a shift," he
said, describing his work unloading 270-pound grills
from trucks alone, by hand. "You're so exhausted. In
the summer, you're soaked in sweat. In the winter,
you're freezing. You constantly have bruised shins,"
from heavy carts with no brakes slamming into workers'
legs.

Meadows came to the warehouse through a temp agency.
Warehouse Workers for Justice, which began organizing
in the area in 2009, estimates that 70 percent of
Chicago-area warehouse workers are temps, amounting to
a "perma-temp system" where workers can work for years
without ever being hired full-time; be paid at, near,
or sometimes below the minimum wage; and can be fired
whenever bosses want.

"[Management] is constantly threatening to replace you.
They want to send a message to you: that you're totally
expendable. We want to show that you can stand up to
management and keep your job," Meadows said.

When the march arrived at the locked warehouse
gates--usually the site of a constant stream of semis
entering and leaving--community leaders and pastors in
clerical collars and stoles sat down in the street in
front of the silent warehouse. Two dozen police, clad
in full riot gear from head to toe, preparing to move
in to make the arrests.

Even more jarring, a black Humvee was idling behind
them, equipped with what appeared to be a Long-Range
Acoustic Device, a sonic weapon for crowd control.
Military-grade policing equipment and cops who appeared
prepared for hand-to-hand streetfighting were being
used to clear the street of pastors and community
leaders softly singing "We Shall Overcome."

As police prepared to make the arrests, strikers
pointed at riot officers' legs and started a chant
referencing the common warehouse problem of constantly
bruised shins. "You've got shinguards! We want
shinguards!" they chanted.

One by one, the 17 were handcuffed and taken away. They
were released several hours later with misdemeanor
citations. Justice Sought

Warehouse Workers for Justice (WWJ), a United
Electrical Workers union (UE) affiliate, says brutal
working conditions, wage theft, and management
retaliation against organizing workers are rampant--and
the big-box companies like Walmart who are supplied by
these warehouses use the complicated layers of
subcontracting to avoid responsibility for working
conditions.

"Walmart needs to take responsibility for the pattern
of egregious abuses in its supply chain," says WWJ
organizer Leah Fried.

Fried says Walmart has five major distribution centers
throughout the U.S. Those centers then distribute goods
to smaller warehouses, which then distribute to Walmart
stores. The Elwood location is the largest warehouse by
far, according to Fried: 70 percent of all imported
products that the company sells in the U.S. come
through that warehouse alone.

Workers estimated that around $8 million was lost as a
result of yesterday's shutdown. While shopping in a
nearby town, one striker's wife overheard a Walmart
manager complaining that he could not fully stock his
store's shelves because of the Elwood action. Fried
says management shut down the warehouse today because
"they're afraid that workers who aren't on strike would
see the community support."

There are 38 workers on strike out of a workforce of
120 at the temp supplier Roadlink and 400 workers
overall in the warehouse. Their web site,
warehouseworker.org, has a petition supporters can sign
and a strike fund for donations. California Strike Ends

In Southern California, three dozen non-union temporary
workers at a Walmart warehouse ended their 15-day
strike and returned to their jobs last Thursday.

The workers, whose direct employer is Walmart
contractor NFI, marched with supporters 50 miles to
downtown Los Angeles September 13-18, calling on
Walmart to take responsibility for appalling safety
conditions in its warehouses. Like the Illinois
workers, they had suffered retaliation for their
organizing efforts, and their strike was an unfair
labor practices strike (NFI was thus legally obligated
to permit them to return). They are connected to the
Warehouse Workers United worker center, an affiliate of
the Change to Win federation.

Back on the job, workers report that supervisors are no
longer requiring them to work with broken ramps, which
had forced workers to manually lift 500 lbs.

A Walmart spokesperson emailed the Huffington Post
about the workers' grievances--unusual, given the
company's habitual stonewalling. Calling their working
conditions "fairly standard" and "consistent with the
conditions in our own warehouses," he nevertheless said
Walmart is "conducting contract reviews with our
service providers with an eye towards implementing
specific health and safety requirements."

Of course, Walmart already has "Standards for
Suppliers," and getting the company to enforce them has
been a main goal of both warehouse worker groups.

The California workers gathered 120,000 signatures on a
national petition calling on Walmart to meet with them.

Walmart retail workers from 11 stores in the L.A. area
were set to rally in Pico Rivera, California, Thursday
with community supporters, also to protest retaliation
for organizing. They are part of the OUR Walmart
organization, backed by the UFCW, which has protested
the low pay of Walmart's 1.4 million retail employees.

Between the two strikes in key places in the Walmart
supply chain and the renewed public scrutiny the
company is receiving, Compton, one of the strikers,
feels confident that warehouse subcontractors and
Walmart itself are worried.

"They just took a humongous financial hit. They're
definitely shaken up," he said.


Micah Uetricht works for ARISE Chicago.

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