Six hundred supporters of striking Walmart warehouse workers in Elwood, Illinois, ratcheted up the pressure Monday with a huge march and civil disobedience that shut down the most important node in the company’s American distribution network. Workers estimate the shutdown cost the company several million dollars.
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, and others.
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 Walmart, 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.
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.