Find out what it means to me
Take care, TCB—- from the song ??"Respect"? by Otis Redding
If you drive down I-55 or I-80 out of Chicago toward Joliet, they are hard to miss. Sprawling boxy-looking buildings, often windowless, but with constant activity as semi's pull up to disgorge their contents. These are the warehouses of Will County, where goods meant mostly for North America's big box stores are routed to their ultimate destinations. They employ thousands of people, mostly people of color, many of them immigrants. It is one of the largest and fasting growing USA centers for product distribution by truck and rail.
It was among those warehouses that Uylonda Dickerson, a single mom, found a job. What she did not find was respect. Not only was the pay rock-bottom, but when she reported for work, she was often sent home instead, because there was not enough to do. This is in direct violation of Illinois law, making it a case of wage theft. If workers are scheduled to work, but are sent home, the company must pay them at least 4 hours of wages.
Uylonda Dickerson sometimes did not receive hourly pay, but was paid by piecework, the hated system used by the sweatshops of the early 20th century. Piecework meant being paid according to the many trailers that she unloaded, a race against time to empty them, resulting in higher stress levels and a greater possibility of injury. Despite the mental and physical hazards of piecework, she received no health benefits, sick days or vacation time.
A Will County warehouse
Uylonda Dickerson endured sexual harassment, constant pain and eventually developed a bladder infection because the womens' bathroom was so far away and using it angered her supervisors. Although the boxes that she unloaded were bound for Walmart, she did not work directly for Walmart, but for a temp agency. Her mind and body driven to the limits of exhaustion, she eventually quit and lived on public assistance, accompanied by the aches, pains and migraines that came from working in the Walmart empire, an empire that has no respect for hard work.
Welcome to the warehouse gulags of Will County. In Stalinist Russia, gulag meant the system of forced labor camps where prisoners were worked to the point of exhaustion and even death. In the area around Joliet, Illinois with its official unemployment rate of 9.6%, workers are often forced to take these low paying warehouse jobs just to survive. The stress and physical hazards associated with an inhuman work pace take their toll and can shave years off of a person's life. Unlike a Soviet gulag, people are always free to leave , but the punishment can be even worse poverty. Uylonda Dickerson ended up in a house without electricity and running water.
It is the temporary workers who have the worst of it. The median wage for warehouse temps is $9 an hour while direct hires make $3.48 more. The majority of Will County warehouse workers are below the federal poverty line. One study calculated a living wage in Will County for a family of four to be $15.87, above what most warehouse workers make.
Chris Williams,an attorney who handles many legal cases for aggrieved Will County warehouse workers believes that wage theft may cost the nation millions in lost workers' pay, thus increasing company profits. He focuses lawsuits against the temp agencies that service Walmart and distance it from the many abuses. Williams says
"I believe Walmart is experimenting…You'll see temp agencies that supervise temp agencies that deal with temp agencies. It just adds another level of distance."
There is a heavy turnover of temps as they often have to move from warehouse to warehouse, making it hard to establish relationships with other workers and with management, relationships that can be important for career advancement. One veteran teamster who took one of these non-union jobs to survive thinks that this a deliberate policy. Uncertain schedules make it more complicated to arrange for doctors' appointments, school visits and proper leisure time, damaging both individual and family life. It also makes it difficult to organize for better wages and conditions through unionization.
Workers at a Sony distribution center meet to discuss grievances
Some will say with sneering contempt that, "Those people are lucky to have a job." This is thinly disguised racism since most Will County warehouse workers are people of color. Others will say it with more good will, but with condescending pity and a sigh of relief, "Better them than me."
The Will County Center for Economic Development issued a glowing report about the future of Will County's warehouse industry, but did mention possible environmental and traffic congestion problems. No mention though of the tax breaks to attract corporations, the fact that many warehouse workers rely on public assistance, or the generally poor quality of the jobs that have been generated.
All of this demonstrates a profound contempt for hard work in a nation that claims to revere it. When it comes to job creation, we set the bar way too low, especially considering how much wealth flows to the top.
"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.?"
Demonstration for justice at a Bissels distribution center
Morales was fired in 2009 because she was among 70 workers who filed charges against labor contractor Maersk Logistics for civil rights, minimum wage and labor law violations. Maersk is a global Danish-based conglomerate with over 100,000 employees in 130 countries. Warehouse Workers for Justice is a group of warehouse workers with a crowded office in Joliet who take on some of the largest and most powerful corporations on the planet.
No one expects Warehouse Workers for Justice to win easy victories, but it has had successes by using the courts combined with worker solidarity and organizing community support. WWJ recently filed suit against a company contracted to food giant Tyson for forcing employees to work an extra 45 minutes without pay, a form of wage theft. This is only the most recent in a series of lawsuits. In another case Latino workers alleged racial discrimination when they were fired. After a large group of Latino community leaders visited and threatened a boycott, the workers were rehired.
Warehouse Workers for Justice is sponsored by the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers a union with a history dating back to 1936. Once one of the largest unions in the USA, it was hit by red-baiting during the McCarthy period. It evolved into a much smaller, but member-driven democratic labor organization. It organized the Republic Windows and Doors plant occupation that caught the world's attention in 2008.
Uylonda Dickerson, who quit her warehouse job for health reasons, is an enthusiastic member of WWJ:
"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."
WWJ is part of a nationwide movement of labor organizations who work outside of the National Labor Relations Board traditional model. In our labor-hostile economy with its primitive labor laws and uncertain enforcement, workers are experimenting with new ways of winning victories and gaining the respect that is in such short supply. It is unclear where this movement is going, but one can find evidence of it across the country. Even some AFL-CIO unions support it in the hope that will eventually rejuvenate our now battered and shrinking labor movement.
Cornel West and Tavis Smiley visit Warehouse Workers for Justice
The warehouses of Will County are only a part of a vast supply chain of exploited labor that begins in the 21st century of sweatshops of China, Vietnam, Thailand, Cambodia, Indonesia and other developing countries and then goes through the USA to the shelves of the big box stores with their underpaid and distressed retail workers. Is this the only way to do modern manufacturing and distribution? Is this how we respect hard work?
And do we really need ALL of this manufactured stuff, given the human unhappiness that accompanies it? Some of the stuff is useful, but how much of it is wasteful production that unnecessarily harms our environment, and misuses valuable resources? How much valuable time and human labor is lost that could go toward better purposes? How much of this stuff is simply filling a consumer products addiction among people bereft of sufficient human connection and spiritual fulfillment? These are hard questions we need to be asking, not just for the benefit of the warehouse workers of Will County, but for ourselves as well.
Warehouse Workers for Justice office
Cartoon by Carol Simpson CartoonWork
The New Blue Collar: Temporary Work, Lasting Poverty And The American Warehouse by Dave Jaimeson
Wal-Mart Warehouse Workers File Class Action Wage Theft Lawsuit by Kari Lyderson
Wage theft lawsuit against a Walmart distributor from Crain's Chicago Business
Bad Jobs in Goods Movement by Warehouse Workers for Justice & the Center for Urban Economic Development at the University of Illinois at Chicago
Chicago Warehouse Workers Navigate Maze of Contractors to Organize by Jane Slaughter
Group maintaining fight for fair labor by Cindy Wojdyla Cain
Work stress and risk of cardiovascular mortality: prospective cohort study of industrial employees by Mika Kivimaki and others