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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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Elizabeth Brennan, a WWU staffer, said some union members came to the warehouse to support the workers when they walked out. “Their jaws were on the floor,” she said. Workers say they’ve never seen conditions so bad.

Over the summer David Garcia, 29, and other workers filed complaints with both CalOSHA, the state health and safety agency, and the National Labor Relations Board. They told CalOSHA, which is investigating, about intense heat and dangerous conditions.

“There’s no lanes painted so the forklifts don't know where they're driving,” Garcia said. Springs on the ramps that lead to trailer doors are broken, so workers are manually lifting 500 pounds. On a day when it’s 95 degrees outside, he said, “inside the container it’s over 120—and whoever’s receiving merchandise stays in there all day.”

The warehouse is of the “cross-dock” type—it has a roof but no walls, and workers have no way to keep the billowing dust out of their mouths. The employer charges workers for necessary safety equipment such as reflective vests.

On the march, Garcia said it was hot walking in the sun, “but not as hot as the warehouse. Here at least we have a breeze. Here we get fresh water.” In the warehouse water comes from a hose, and supervisors discourage workers from refilling their bottles too often.

Garcia found the marching “a relief. At least we’re not getting yelled at.”

Despite harassment, Garcia didn’t quit the $8-an-hour job (California’s minimum wage), citing his five children to support. Most workers on his job are Latino immigrants.

AFTERMATH

The six-day march was an excellent chance, Brennan said, for workers to “leave the desert and interact with all kinds of other people.” Their march was joined by a contingent from the United Farm Workers one day and from OUR Walmart, a group of Walmart store workers, on another. Students, church members, union members, and community groups all walked.

Best yet, at each meeting held since the march ended, a couple more warehouse workers join the strike and start participating. Last Saturday they connected with a rally by community groups in San Diego opposed to Walmart tearing down a historical building to build a store. Picket lines in front of the warehouse continue. And, said Brennan, “the workers don't seem to be exhausted at all.”

THE SUPPLY CHAIN

Everything from socks to above-ground swimming pools passes briefly through these workers’ hands on its way to Walmart stores around the country. Huge containers stuffed with goods from Asia are trucked directly from ships docked in the Port of Los Angeles. NFI workers remove the merchandise and push it or forklift it across the dock to waiting tractor trailers, which will take it to Walmart warehouses or stores.

Walmart hires contractors like NFI, which owns 21 million square feet of warehouse space in the U.S., to run such “transloading” facilities, and those contractors use temp agencies like Warestaff to supply workers like Garcia.

Will County, Illinois, where the second strike took place, is a key Walmart hub with a similar set-up. In this case, Schneider National, another huge third-party logistics supplier, contracts with Roadlink for the muscle to move Walmart’s goods.

WALMART BACKS DOWN

Walmart suffered a rare defeat at the hands of workers in its supply chain this summer when eight crawfish peelers in Louisiana walked out after weeks of forced overtime and threats from supervisors.

Although the eight were on H-2B guestworker visas, which tie an employee to a particular employer, they struck and presented Walmart supplier C.J.’s Seafood with a list of demands, including unpaid wages.

 
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