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Chicago Warehouse Workers Navigate Maze of Contractors to Organize


Heading down I-55 or I-80 southwest of Chicago, a driver passes mile after mile of anonymous, windowless warehouses. Each year a trillion dollars worth of goods moves through the area, one of the bigger nodes in the global distribution network of consumer products.

Computers, air conditioners, vacuum cleaners, Halloween costumes arrive at West Coast ports on ships from Asia, are loaded onto trains, and chug to the City of Big Shoulders, where all six Class 1 railroads meet. Workers offload the goods, which are piled onto trucks or other trains and travel to the big boxes.

In between, those goods spend some time in a warehouse. “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.”

Morales was fired in November 2009, along with 70 co-workers, a week after they filed charges against their employer, the contractor Maersk Logistics, for violations of minimum wage, civil rights, and labor laws and told management they had formed a union.

She is a member of Warehouse Workers for Justice, a worker center affiliated with the United Electrical Workers (UE). WWJ unites workers from across the dizzying array of contractors that operate in the warehouses and helps them fight for their rights with lawsuits, media pressure, and in-plant actions.

On October 15, with support from WWJ, UE launched an organizing committee, pulling together 50 leaders from different shops as a first step toward forming a union among the 150,000 warehouse workers in the area.

The dues-paying membership organization elected a steering committee and video-conferenced with warehouse workers in New Jersey and the Inland Empire in California (see box) who were having similar meetings at the same time.

TEMP MAJORITIES

Workers’ issues are abundant and so are their obstacles.

The big retailers like Walmart often hire logistics companies that manage the warehouses, and those companies often staff through temp agencies.

A survey WWJ conducted with university researchers found 63 percent of warehouse workers in Will County, west of Chicago, are employed by temp agencies. There are 100 temp agencies in that county alone, both big national companies like Staffmark and small ones that are locally owned.

“This is where our economy is headed,” said UE International Rep Mark Meinster. “We’re seeing this type of temporary employment in manufacturing, hospitality, health care, even retail. Unions need to organize temp workers if we’re going to build power in this economy.”

A fifth of the workers surveyed had been working as a temp for more than a year. Forty-four percent had worked in two or more warehouses in the last year, unable to land a “direct-hire” job.

The median wage for the temps surveyed was $9 an hour, while direct-hire employees’ was $12.48. Almost no temp workers had sick days, vacation, or health insurance. A quarter of all warehouse workers received government benefits of some sort.

A quarter of the workers were women, and more than a third were under 26 years old. Nearly half were African American and more than a third Latino.

A big issue is piecework, where workers are paid by the shipping container. Depending on the contents, a team of two workers might take a few hours or a whole shift to unload a container—sometimes leaving them with less than minimum wage.

BEATING CONTRACTORS

Though the contracting-out system poses an organizing challenge, Meinster says it can be overcome. “Much in the way the SEIU’s Justice for Janitors campaign targeted building owners who had the real power,” he said, “we are targeting the large retailers who benefit from the labor abuse in their supply chains.”

In its organizing thus far, WWJ has found enough stability in the workforce to form an organization that can win gains. It is aided by an unusual Illinois law that gives some rights to temp workers. The law spells out temp companies’ obligations to inform workers of their pay and job duties and specifies their right to a secure, heated waiting area, with a restroom.

Most important, the law makes not only the temp agency but also its client company responsible for following the law. Workers can file a complaint against Walmart or Home Depot for violations that happen in their warehouses.

“Instead of simply filing a lawsuit, workers will march on the boss or do press conferences to expose these abuses,” said Meinster.

In one large warehouse that distributes foods to ethnic grocery stores, 10 Latino workers alleged they were fired based on their national origin. With assistance from WWJ, workers signed petitions and organized protests against management.

WWJ organized a large delegation of Chicago Latino community leaders to visit the plant and warn management that discrimination against Latino workers would bring on a boycott of the company’s products. The workers were rehired.

At a warehouse that shipped Cadbury candy, WWJ got complaints from workers about swastikas and KKK signs in the bathrooms and break areas. They said managers for the temp company that ran the warehouse sexually harassed women workers and discriminated against Blacks and Latinos for promotions.

Workers went to management repeatedly about the graffiti and old, unsafe forklifts, but supervisors turned a deaf ear.

WWJ helped workers organize a committee that circulated petitions and carried out marches on the boss. They filed suit and went public with their claims, garnering media attention. Cadbury’s parent company, the multinational Kraft Foods, intervened, firing managers, scrubbing the graffiti, and addressing safety issues. The discrimination cases are pending at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

On October 18 WWJ filed a class-action suit against Nexus Employment Solutions, the temp agency at a Tyson warehouse. Workers allege they were required to work without pay for almost an hour before being allowed to clock in. “If we didn’t show up 45 minutes early, they wouldn’t let us work,” said Nancy Price, who worked for Nexus for 10 months.

EVERY DAY A RACE

WWJ member Uylonda Dickerson lost her job at a Walmart warehouse six months ago. “This job was actually like a race,” she said. She and a partner, who were paid by the piece, would pull up a cart to a trailer door and unload, by hand, whatever items were inside, from swimming pools to patio sets.

They then pulled the cart, by hand, to the other side of the warehouse, where the items were loaded onto another trailer bound for Walmart stores. “Then you go back and do it all over again,” Dickerson said.

Now Dickerson is a regular at WWJ rallies and has gone door to door to recruit. She says at meetings, “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.” 

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