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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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  This piece was originally published by Labor Notes. Come to the Labor Notes conference May 4-6 in Chicago, the biggest gathering of grassroots labor activists and all-around troublemakers out there! More than 100 workshops and meetings to ‘put the movement back in the labor movement.’  

Workers in the nation’s sprawling distribution network hold enormous potential power. They bring $622 billion of goods each year from abroad to retail shelves. A work stoppage in any section of the interlinked network—dock workers, railroad workers, truck drivers, warehouse workers, store workers—could shut off the spigot of goods that keep consumers happy and keep profits churning through the supply chain.

In 2002 a 10-day lockout of West Coast dockworkers left a backlog of 200 ships waiting to be unloaded, causing alarmed big-box retailers to beg President Bush to resolve the dispute.

But most workers in the chain belong to no organization that could channel their energy. Their many occupations are fragmented, separated by ethnic and language differences, citizenship status, directly hired workers and temps, employees and “independent contractors,” union and non-union.

Few identify with the catch-all term “logistics worker” that attempts to capture their connections and their shared place in the economy.

In the case of  warehouse workers, along with retail employees the lowest paid of the bunch, their power is further hidden from them by the instability of their jobs. Organizers believe well over half the workers in three major warehouse hubs work for temporary staffing agencies, with all the lack of transparency that arrangement entails.

Such agencies often pay little above minimum wage, with no benefits and no set schedule. Relentless pressure from the big retailers to lower costs creates these bottom feeders, adding yet another intermediary layer that exempts those retail behemoths from responsibility for workers in their supply chains.

Maria Lopez (a pseudonym) works in a New Jersey factory making Walmart-brand pharmaceuticals. She explains it simply: “Walmart establishes a price, the lowest possible, and then it pressures all the warehouses and factories to lower their prices. Walmart is paying a low salary, and they are getting rich off of us.”

KEY NODES

But against the odds, today warehouse workers are organizing in three crucial hubs: the “Inland Empire” east of Los Angeles, a giant complex southwest of Chicago, and the distribution centers along the New Jersey Turnpike.

The three groups are sharing information and tactics, using a combination of organizing on the shop floor, publicity, demonstrations with allies, and state enforcement of wage-and-hour and health-and-safety laws. They acknowledge they are unlikely to get far with traditional NLRB elections shop by shop, yet maintain a focus on workers’ immediate issues on the ground, which means close attention to individual workplaces.

There are 100,000 warehouse workers in the Inland Empire, where Warehouse Workers United, backed by Change to Win, has campaigned for three years. Originally designed to blitz the industry following passage of the abandoned Employee Free Choice Act, the drive is now targeting workers whose ultimate controller is Walmart.

Linked to the Food and Commercial Workers’ (UFCW) campaign against the mega-retailer, the goal is to push Walmart to enforce good behavior on the employers in its supply chain.

Says director Nick Allen, “There is no path without beating Walmart.”

Walmart is five times larger than Kroger, the next largest retailer in the U.S., and nearly six times bigger than Target, its closest competitor in non-food retail.

Mark Meinster organizes with  Warehouse Workers for Justice, a United Electrical Workers (UE) affiliate, near Chicago. He notes that Walmart sets the conditions: one of its Chicago-area warehouses pioneered paying workers by the piece instead of hourly.

 
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