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Working In These Times

Friday, Dec 11, 2009, 8:46 am

Warehouse Workers File Class-Action Wage Theft Lawsuit

BY David Moberg
CHICAGO—From the first weeks after he began working last year as a temporary loader at Wal-Mart’s big distribution center in suburban Chicago, Miguel Deniz suspected that his immediate employer–a day labor agency known as SelectRemedy–was shortchanging him. But the company obscured its wage theft by paying him by direct deposit or with a cash card, not a paycheck listing his hours.

So Deniz started keeping records. He says they confirmed that the company was paying him for fewer hours than he worked. It also was dividing up his work into short blocks of hours to avoid both the appearance of his working more than 40 hours a week and the necessity of paying overtime.

“Always, I never got my complete hours,” the 62-year old veteran day laborer says. “To avoid paying us 40 hours, they gave us six hours here, six hours there. Also, if in four days I work 30 hours, they only pay 17 or 18.”

On the stinging cold morning of Dec. 10, Deniz joined other temporary workers outside Chicago’s only Wal-Mart store to announce a class-action lawsuit against SelectRemedy for repeated failures to pay overtime, the minimum wage or all the money due to workers, among other charges. 

Although SelectRemedy (also known as Real Time Staffing Services, Inc.) is primarily responsible for the alleged wage theft and for making workers whole, Wal-Mart and other big warehouse owners who contract with temp agencies are ultimately also responsible–legally and practically, according to Chris Williams, the attorney filing the class action.

These big companies play the smaller temp agencies against each other to get the lowest price. As a result, for the temp agencies, Williams says, “the only way to make a profit is to cheat the workers.”

The lawsuit grew out of work by UE, the United Electrical Workers, who were trying to build on the momentum of their big victory last winter with the occupation of Republic Windows and Doors. With well-developed truck, train and air connections, metropolitan Chicago forms the largest intermodal freight transfer center in North America and, UE says, the third largest in the world. Studies, such as one by the local St. Francis University, indicate that about 70 percent of intermodal workers are temps. 

Mark Meinster, UE organizer and member of the board of Warehouse Workers for Justice, says the union is “drawing on the workers’ center structure to win justice in the industry, by educating workers on their rights, taking action to defend workers, bringing community support, and holding retailers accountable for abuses in the supply chain.”

Last month, Warehouse Workers for Justice called a protest demonstration against Bissell, the vacuum cleaner company, whose temp agency had cut wages and shortchanged workers (often paying less than minimum wage), workers say. As organizing spreads, there should be many opportunities for such protests.

(For more on warehouse workers' struggles, read R.M. Arrieta's Working ITT article "In Inland Empire, 'Temp' Workers Demand Living Wage.")

This post originally identified Mark Meinster's organization as Warehouse Workers United (based in California), rather than Warehouse Workers for Justice (based in Chicago). The two organizations are not affiliated.

David Moberg, a senior editor of In These Times, has been on the staff of the magazine since it began publishing in 1976. Before joining In These Times, he completed his work for a Ph.D. in anthropology at the University of Chicago and worked for Newsweek. He has received fellowships from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and the Nation Institute for research on the new global economy. He can be reached at davidmoberg@inthesetimes.com.

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