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Supply Chain Workers Test Strength of Links

Workers in the nation’s sprawling distribution network hold enormous potential power.

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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.”

TRICOASTAL SOLIDARITY

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.”

WORKERS’ COUNCILS

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.”

 
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