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What We Learn from Two Strikes at Walmart Warehouses

In a time when few union members dare strike, three dozen California workers who move goods for Walmart walked off their jobs September 12. Three days later, 30 Illinois warehouse workers walked out too.
 
 
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This story was originally published at Labor Notes.

A strike at Walmart? Two of them. In a time when few union members dare strike, three dozen Southern California workers who move goods for Walmart were desperate enough to walk off their jobs September 12 even without union protection.

Three days later, 30 workers who’d been organizing with Warehouse Workers for Justice in Elwood, Illinois, southwest of Chicago, walked out, too.

Both groups of workers had taken legal action against their employers, contractors who move goods for Walmart, and their strikes were protesting illegal retaliation.

California strikers asked the NLRB to investigate a half dozen unfair labor practices: retaliation against and surveillance of those who’ve been organizing with the energetic  Warehouse Workers United (WWU) worker center, an affiliate of the Change to Win federation, for better conditions.

Striker David Garcia said, “For a whole week they were making me lift bicycles all day every day just to see if I would quit or give up.” Wearing a WWU T-shirt could mean being sent home early, Garcia said.

In Illinois, workers for Walmart contractor Roadlink filed suit in federal court September 13 for non-payment of overtime, non-payment for all hours worked, and even pay less than the minimum wage. When they delivered a petition to a Roadlink manager onsite, he immediately fired several of the leaders and threatened everyone else, touching off the strike. One manager tried to drive a big forklift into the crowd of workers.

The warehouse is still operating but the strike has impacted production. All strikers have been told they are suspended. Their petition to Walmart asked the company to ensure workers are paid for all their hours, with consistent work schedules and safety training and equipment.

The warehouses outside Chicago are a major portal for goods flowing into retail stores throughout the country, and Warehouse Workers for Justice, a worker center connected to the United Electrical Workers union (UE), has been working there since 2009 to support workers in getting their full pay and to fight sexual and racial harassment.

Strikers delivered a national petition to Walmart corporate offices north of Chicago, with 37,000 signatures supporting the California workers. They got support from striking Chicago teachers September 18 when 150 red-shirted teachers marched with them from a high school to a nearby Walmart store. The group received a police escort to march in the street and then went inside the store for 45 minutes, chanting.

“The idea,” said UE organizer Leah Fried, “was to link the disturbing labor practices in Walmart warehouses with the Walmart Family Fund, which has invested $1 billion in efforts to privatize public schools.” The Fund gave $3 million to a group, Stand for Children, that successfully lobbied for an  anti-teacher law in Illinois last year.

On October 1, the workers plan a big rally at their warehouse with allies from unions, worker centers, and community groups.

WALMARCH

The California workers were already planning a “Walmarch” when they hit the dusty pavement outside their warehouse the day before. Warehouse workers, supporters, and former warehouse workers who are injured walked 50 miles from the “Inland Empire,” home to hundreds of warehouses and 85,000 warehouse workers. Their destination was city hall in downtown Los Angeles, a six-day trek.

Their goal: to win immediate improvements inside the warehouses and to say once again to Walmart that it must take responsibility for the hundreds of thousands of workers in its supply chain.

Workers took the risk of striking because, having worked in other warehouses, they say conditions at this warehouse are the worst. It’s owned by NFI, a major national player in the growing “third-party logistics” industry.

 
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