Supply Chain Workers Test Strength of Links
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In Will County, Illinois, workers have made an issue of enforcing Walmart’s official policy, which requires its suppliers to follow the law. They demonstrated at the new downtown Walmart in Chicago in February, demanding that the company enforce its policy at Eclipse Advantage, a staffing agency that ended contracts for 100 workers without warning.
The Chicago-area warehouse workforce is 40 percent Latino, 40 percent Black, and 20 percent white. Twice a year WWJ gathers volunteers from among UE members to go door to door to recruit in neighborhoods.
Some of those fired Eclipse workers, who worked at a three-million-square-foot Walmart warehouse, had filed wage and hour complaints with the state—making the firings illegal retaliation, they say. Their piece-rate system often resulted in wages way below the legal minimum. One worker brought in a pay stub showing $57.81 for 12.5 hours of work.
Leticia Rodriguez, who was among those fired December 29, explains, “Workers were paid by the truck, but there is no way anyone could unload a truck full of 430 trampolines in three hours.”
Now workers have filed a WARN Act lawsuit as well, claiming they did not receive the required 60 days’ notice of a mass layoff.
Said Rodriguez of her involvement with WWJ, “I learned rights I didn’t know I had.”
Looking at the logistics industry, it would be easy to see Goliath facing a David who’s just realizing he has cousins in the assembling crowd.
Longshore and rail workers belong to unions, but most truckers, retail workers, and warehouse workers do not. No one is expecting the Teamsters to re-organize the freight industry soon, nor the warehouse workers to win contracts with Walmart.
Still, organizers can see how solidarity could flourish. Meinster says logistics workers have tremendous potential power because retailers compete on the basis of how efficient their supply chains are.
Pulling that supply chain taut puts power in the hands of the workers who move the goods. “Workers who are so important to the success of these companies ought to be paid accordingly,” he says.
There have been small steps toward bridging the divides. In 2010 the UE organized low-paid van drivers who shuttle Chicago-area rail workers from yard to yard. During a contract campaign last year workers and organizers talked up van driver issues at railroad workers’ union meetings.
Rail crews signed petitions and postcards to management calling for a living wage for the van drivers and to take concession demands off the table. Leaders from Locomotive Engineers locals in Illinois and Iowa attended negotiations in support of the drivers.
What might it take to unravel the thorny knots separating workers from each other? Peter Olney, an organizer with the Longshore Union (ILWU), says warehouse workers need their own “pervasive ground game coupled with leverage from trucking and the docks.” He notes the huge disparity between high-paid and well-organized ILWU members moving freight, and, 45 miles inland from West Coast docks, “people doing the same work at minimum wage with no benefits.”
Many of the ILWU’s big multinational ocean-carrier employers own subsidiaries that run warehouses. Olney likes to envision an ILWU contract expiration when warehouse workers at the subsidiaries could rowdily demand union recognition while ILWU members on the docks insisted on the same for their brothers and sisters.
After all, logistics workers in established unions have felt their employers’ aggression too: rail workers, dockers, and especially truckers, who’ve seen the union share of the freight industry fall from a strong majority in the 1970s to less than a quarter today.