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Riot Police Called as Striking Workers and Supporters Shut Down Walmart Warehouse

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.”
 
 
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This story was originally published at Labor Notes.

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 that shutting down the facility 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, ROC Chicago, and the Chicago Workers Collaborative.

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.