The chants rang out across Vincennes Ave in the Chatham neighborhood of South Side Chicago:
"1-2-3-4 No one should be working poor!
5-6-7-8 Come on Walmart, play it straight!
We're working families
What do we do?
Stand up! Fight back!
There ain't no power,
Like the power of the people,
Cuz the power of the people won't stop!"
Striking teachers from the Chicago Teachers Union(CTU) had joined Warehouse Workers for Justice(WWJ) at a rally aimed at Walmart to protest its employee abuses and the dumping of millions of dollars into school privatization efforts. It was the afternoon of Tuesday September 18, only a few hours before the CTU House of Delegates ended the teachers strike. I had come to the rally with a CTU retiree.
Inspired by the labor-community alliance that the CTU had built in its strike and by a strike of Walmart warehouse workers in California, the Illinois warehouse workers led by WWJ went on strike against Roadlink Workforce Solutions. Roadlink is a subcontractor at the vast Walmart distribution center located in Elwood IL near Joliet, south of Chicago. The Joliet region is now a major distribution point in the big box store supply chain. WWJ is a project of the United Electrical Workers (UE), the legendary progressive union which can trace it’s history back to the factory occupations of the Great Depression.
Most of the warehouse jobs in the Joliet region come through staffing agencies who usually classify the workers as temps. Wages average around $10 an hour with few or no benefits, far below the $16 an hour that‘s a living wage in the region. Some workers are condemned to do piecework as “independent contractors” and can easily make less than minimum wage.
Conditions inside the Walmart distribution center are horrendous. Summer temperatures can rise to over 100 degrees, workers are forced to inhale unhealthy dust and chemical residues, and are forced to work erratic unpredictable schedules. Workers complain of rampant wage theft including failure to pay overtime. There is also illegal gender and racial discrimination.
Roadlink worker Vincent Hoffman said this in a press release:
"I worked for Roadlink Workforce Solutions in the Wal-Mart warehouse. 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."
The strike at the Elwood distribution center began after WWJ filed a lawsuit alleging wage theft. The company began a campaign of intimidation which reached a climax when workers led by Phil Bailey handed in a petition calling for a living wage and regular hours. Roadlink suspended the group and the strike began.
Teachers also have their grievances against the Walmart empire. The Walton Family Foundation has given over 1 billion dollars to corporate school “reform” which has meant a barrage of privatization and union busting efforts nationwide. In Illinois the Foundation spent 3 million dollars funding Stand for Children which worked to limit the ability of Chicago teachers to negotiate critical issues like class size, curriculum, school closings, teacher layoffs and ending the abuse of hi-stakes testing. While posing a “friend” of education, Walmart through its foundation seeks to drive down the standard of living for teachers while dumbing down the curriculum to fit its model of corporate domination based on privatization and hi-stakes testing.
While the national media may have been overwhelmingly negative toward the striking teachers, their cause was popular in Chicago's working class neighborhoods. In addition, working class Chicagoans may shop at the local Walmart to save money, but that does not mean they agree with the company's low wages and constant of abuse of its employees.
At the short rally, people joined in spirited chanting and listened to short speeches like the one that warehouse worker Mike Compton gave:
“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.”
Chatham is located in the heart of the working class South Side and is overwhelmingly African American. Drivers of trucks and cars traveling along Vincennes Ave were constantly sounding their horns and raising fists or giving friendly waves. It's considered polite for protestors to raise their fists as a sign of thanks and I'm going to tell you, our arms went up often as we cheered our supporters.
After the speeches we began our march through Chatham to the local Walmart. When we emerged on the heavily trafficked 87th street, there was more horn blowing and friendly gestures. The police were surprisingly cooperative and actually helped direct traffic and provided a non-threatening escort as we marched across 87th Street and into the shopping center toward the Walmart.
I was hopeful that we could march through the store, so I stopped snapping photos and ran toward the front of the march. Much to my surprise, the police made no attempt to stop us as we approached the entrance. I saw several people march inside carrying our protest signs while chanting. When I reached the west entrance a large male Walmart employee was blocking the door and barked, “No protesting allowed inside.”
I walked over to the east door where another male Walmart employee stood in the entrance, but made no effort to stop people walking on either side of him. I joined about 20 or so other marchers who were leaving leaflets in strategic places while walking about in the store or marching toward the exit. More protestors came in behind me. No one interfered with us while we were inside the store. The cashiers and customers looked on in amazement, but there was no overt hostility from any of them.
After the last protestors finally emerged from inside the police moved in with the obvious intention of preventing any further incursions. But we had made our point and marched back to the rally staging area with our heads held high.
The CTU and the UE are two of the most progressive unions in Chicagoland. They were joined at the Walmart protest by representatives from United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW), Service Employees International Union(SEIU), Our Walmart(a Walmart employee advocacy group), Jobs with Justice, the Chicago Teachers Solidarity Campaign and other organizations.
Chicago was once the capital of labor militancy in the USA. Although Chicago still has many union members, it has a relatively weak and divided labor movement. Labor activists believe that the now historic strike of the Chicago teachers could inspire more working class unity and militancy. Indeed one of the phrases heard all around Chicago from other workers was,"We should be doing what the teachers are doing."
WWJ's courageous stand against one of the planet's most powerful employers is another cause for optimism that perhaps Chicagoland labor is turning a corner toward reclaiming its once radical labor tradition. In the face of the relentless corporate attacks coming down on Chicago's working class, I certainly hope so.
Bob "Bobbosphere" Simpson is a member of the Chicago Teachers Solidarity Campaign and served as a volunteer at the CTU Strike HQ for the duration of the strike.
The crisis in Chicago's warehouses by Warehouse Workers for Justice
Warehouse Workers Strike In Illinois On Heels Of California Walkout by Dave Jamieson
Workers walk out at Walmart plant in Elwood by Steve Metsch
Walmart warehouse workers strike by Curtis Black
Walking out on Wal-Mart by Nicole Colson