Workers in the nation’s sprawling distribution network hold enormous potential power. They bring $622 billion of goods each year from abroad to retail shelves. A work stoppage in any section of the interlinked network—dock workers, railroad workers, truck drivers, warehouse workers, store workers—could shut off the spigot of goods that keep consumers happy and keep profits churning through the supply chain.
In 2002 a 10-day lockout of West Coast dockworkers left a backlog of 200 ships waiting to be unloaded, causing alarmed big-box retailers to beg President Bush to resolve the dispute.
But most workers in the chain belong to no organization that could channel their energy. Their many occupations are fragmented, separated by ethnic and language differences, citizenship status, directly hired workers and temps, employees and “independent contractors,” union and non-union.
Few identify with the catch-all term “logistics worker” that attempts to capture their connections and their shared place in the economy.
In the case of warehouse workers, along with retail employees the lowest paid of the bunch, their power is further hidden from them by the instability of their jobs. Organizers believe well over half the workers in three major warehouse hubs work for temporary staffing agencies, with all the lack of transparency that arrangement entails.
Such agencies often pay little above minimum wage, with no benefits and no set schedule. Relentless pressure from the big retailers to lower costs creates these bottom feeders, adding yet another intermediary layer that exempts those retail behemoths from responsibility for workers in their supply chains.
Maria Lopez (a pseudonym) works in a New Jersey factory making Walmart-brand pharmaceuticals. She explains it simply: “Walmart establishes a price, the lowest possible, and then it pressures all the warehouses and factories to lower their prices. Walmart is paying a low salary, and they are getting rich off of us.”
But against the odds, today warehouse workers are organizing in three crucial hubs: the “Inland Empire” east of Los Angeles, a giant complex southwest of Chicago, and the distribution centers along the New Jersey Turnpike.
The three groups are sharing information and tactics, using a combination of organizing on the shop floor, publicity, demonstrations with allies, and state enforcement of wage-and-hour and health-and-safety laws. They acknowledge they are unlikely to get far with traditional NLRB elections shop by shop, yet maintain a focus on workers’ immediate issues on the ground, which means close attention to individual workplaces.
There are 100,000 warehouse workers in the Inland Empire, where Warehouse Workers United, backed by Change to Win, has campaigned for three years. Originally designed to blitz the industry following passage of the abandoned Employee Free Choice Act, the drive is now targeting workers whose ultimate controller is Walmart.
Linked to the Food and Commercial Workers’ (UFCW) campaign against the mega-retailer, the goal is to push Walmart to enforce good behavior on the employers in its supply chain.
Says director Nick Allen, “There is no path without beating Walmart.”
Walmart is five times larger than Kroger, the next largest retailer in the U.S., and nearly six times bigger than Target, its closest competitor in non-food retail.
Mark Meinster organizes with Warehouse Workers for Justice, a United Electrical Workers (UE) affiliate, near Chicago. He notes that Walmart sets the conditions: one of its Chicago-area warehouses pioneered paying workers by the piece instead of hourly.
Other employers picked up the practice, which makes workers wait for containers to arrive and often leaves them with less than minimum wage. “Any effort to improve conditions for warehouse workers has to be centered on Walmart,” Meinster said.
The strategy is to organize workers on the lowest rungs of the Walmart ladder at the same time that allies such as Jobs with Justice and OUR Walmart, the organization of store workers backed by UFCW, are pressuring the company.
The allies are challenging bad working conditions at the stores, while community coalitions are loudly denouncing Walmart’s attempts to bring its low-road labor practices to new cities, where the company badly needs to expand to shore up sales.
“Shaming alone would not deliver any results,” Allen says, “but shaming in combination with a robust campaign of organized workers could cause the company to look hard at its own business model.”
Pointing to unionized Walmart stores in Europe, Latin America, and Asia, Allen thinks the company is pragmatic. If U.S. workers and allies can put on a campaign that “shows labor is not going away,” Walmart could “make adjustments.” His aim is to create a situation where Walmart’s choice is “we can keep waging these wars, or enough already.”
Last October the three groups of warehouse workers met via videoconference to share stories and solidarity, speaking in Spanish and English. All belong to membership organizations with monthly dues of $5 or $10. WWU uses the old-time card system, where the member’s card is punched when she pays up.
All have lawyers to help with legal claims but put a premium on getting workers to take visible action against their employers. Santos Castaneda, 25, tells about the Chino, California, warehouse where he’s worked as a temp for three-and-a-half years, moving shoes and clothes for Walmart.
His warehouse was a dirty mess, with unmaintained forklifts and temperatures at 115 degrees inside the containers workers unloaded. “They never gave us any training how to operate a forklift or how to work safely,” Castaneda said. “Pallets were always tilting over, and the pressure from supervisors was bad.”
WWU organizers trained Castaneda how to file a complaint with Cal-OSHA—which got him fired.
But WWU put a petition online that garnered more than 3,000 signatures, and two days later organized a delegation to management, bringing supporters from Service Employees Local 721. “A couple hours later they were calling me back to go to work,” Castaneda said.
Workers got new forklifts, safety mirrors in the aisles, a clean warehouse, and water to drink. Castaneda particularly likes the respect: “They know we’re involved with Warehouse Workers United so they don’t mess with us.”
Along the New Jersey Turnpike, an 11-year-old worker center called New Labor has built consejos, or workers’ councils, in three cities with high densities of temp agencies. Workers are trained in identifying violations and in recruiting co-workers.
Juan Rojas explains that the consejos are open to any worker, with biweekly meetings. “Someone can present a problem in their workplace,” he said, “and together we look for a way to respond.”
New Labor convinced the temp agency On Target to sign a memorandum of understanding that recognizes New Labor as a party. On Target was requiring workers to use—and pay dearly for—its company vans to get to work, even if they had their own transportation. The memo establishes a time frame to end the practice.
The worker center focuses on Walmart but maintains its openness to all. “These aren’t Walmart workers,” said Director Marien Casillas of the On Target workforce. “But we want to illustrate to the consejos that it’s possible to get an agreement.”
In Will County, Illinois, workers have made an issue of enforcing Walmart’s official policy, which requires its suppliers to follow the law. They demonstrated at the new downtown Walmart in Chicago in February, demanding that the company enforce its policy at Eclipse Advantage, a staffing agency that ended contracts for 100 workers without warning.
The Chicago-area warehouse workforce is 40 percent Latino, 40 percent Black, and 20 percent white. Twice a year WWJ gathers volunteers from among UE members to go door to door to recruit in neighborhoods.
Some of those fired Eclipse workers, who worked at a three-million-square-foot Walmart warehouse, had filed wage and hour complaints with the state—making the firings illegal retaliation, they say. Their piece-rate system often resulted in wages way below the legal minimum. One worker brought in a pay stub showing $57.81 for 12.5 hours of work.
Leticia Rodriguez, who was among those fired December 29, explains, “Workers were paid by the truck, but there is no way anyone could unload a truck full of 430 trampolines in three hours.”
Now workers have filed a WARN Act lawsuit as well, claiming they did not receive the required 60 days’ notice of a mass layoff.
Said Rodriguez of her involvement with WWJ, “I learned rights I didn’t know I had.”
Looking at the logistics industry, it would be easy to see Goliath facing a David who’s just realizing he has cousins in the assembling crowd.
Longshore and rail workers belong to unions, but most truckers, retail workers, and warehouse workers do not. No one is expecting the Teamsters to re-organize the freight industry soon, nor the warehouse workers to win contracts with Walmart.
Still, organizers can see how solidarity could flourish. Meinster says logistics workers have tremendous potential power because retailers compete on the basis of how efficient their supply chains are.
Pulling that supply chain taut puts power in the hands of the workers who move the goods. “Workers who are so important to the success of these companies ought to be paid accordingly,” he says.
There have been small steps toward bridging the divides. In 2010 the UE organized low-paid van drivers who shuttle Chicago-area rail workers from yard to yard. During a contract campaign last year workers and organizers talked up van driver issues at railroad workers’ union meetings.
Rail crews signed petitions and postcards to management calling for a living wage for the van drivers and to take concession demands off the table. Leaders from Locomotive Engineers locals in Illinois and Iowa attended negotiations in support of the drivers.
What might it take to unravel the thorny knots separating workers from each other? Peter Olney, an organizer with the Longshore Union (ILWU), says warehouse workers need their own “pervasive ground game coupled with leverage from trucking and the docks.” He notes the huge disparity between high-paid and well-organized ILWU members moving freight, and, 45 miles inland from West Coast docks, “people doing the same work at minimum wage with no benefits.”
Many of the ILWU’s big multinational ocean-carrier employers own subsidiaries that run warehouses. Olney likes to envision an ILWU contract expiration when warehouse workers at the subsidiaries could rowdily demand union recognition while ILWU members on the docks insisted on the same for their brothers and sisters.
After all, logistics workers in established unions have felt their employers’ aggression too: rail workers, dockers, and especially truckers, who’ve seen the union share of the freight industry fall from a strong majority in the 1970s to less than a quarter today.
“Warehouse workers have to organize on their own terms,” Meinster says. “Once they’re ready they will reach out to workers throughout the chain and we’re hopeful we’ll find that support.”