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Working In These Times

Friday, Feb 5, 2010, 10:27 am

UE Election Victory: Drivers at Hemisphere’s Largest ‘Inland Port’ Join the Fold

BY Kari Lydersen

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Renzenberger drivers celebrate the result of the NLRB election vote. Pictured above, from left to right, are Roland Bibbs, Glenda Nixon, Tim Fox, Cynthia Moton, James Hill, Ammie Dixon and Liz Rush.   (Photo by Abraham Mwaura for ueunion.org)

The 160 drivers who work for Renzenberger in the Chicago suburbs are among the hidden workforce that keeps Chicago’s “logistics industry” humming. These workers shuttle railroad crews among the myriad intermodal facilities and rail hubs in the city's western suburbs, where goods from across the globe arrive in massive containers and are redistributed throughout the country.

Now the drivers are the newest Chicago-area members of the Union of Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America (UE), the independent union famous for the Republic Windows and Doors occupation. On February 1, after a hard-fought organizing drive, the workers voted by a 3-1 margin to unionize with the UE.

The drivers say they are constantly on call, working long and erratic hours often without lunch breaks. (The company’s website says they are required to have nine hours rest after 10 hours of drive-time.)

“[S]ince they’re on call all the time and they don’t get the rest they need," says UE organizer Mark Meinster, "it’s a safety issue.”

They start at minimum wage and complain they are subjected to unfair and arbitrary discipline, forced to work off the clock, denied due process for grievances and recently had wages cut and frozen. The drivers have no health insurance, paid sick days or holidays.

A Renzenberger employee who was formerly a UE member connected the union with the drivers, and Republic Windows UE Local 1110 veterans including Armando Robles, Ricky Maclin, Sergio Revuelta, Ron Bender and Raul Flores joined the campaign.

In years past, such drivers would work directly for the railroad. Now, in keeping with the general trend in the logistics industry, they are employed by subcontractors like Renzenberger, a national company with operations in 23 states. From the clean up of Hurricane Katrina to the “rebuilding” of Iraq, the subcontracting system has become an increasingly common staple of labor systems that usually allow major companies to dodge responsibility for working conditions and low pay.

On the website “Job Vent,” workers at Renzenberger locations nationwide air numerous complaints about the company. A Chicago area worker—presumably now a UE member—called taking the job “the worst mistake of my life,” and another called it a “cut-throat horrible company” that offers a “miserable poverty-stricken existence.” 

Most workers in the warehouse and intermodal facility hubs outside Chicago – the largest “inland port” in the western hemisphere, according to industry numbers – are not only employed by subcontractors but are also temporary workers with no chance to earn seniority or run traditional unionizing drives. Since the Renzenberger drivers are permanent employees – albeit low paid ones – they were able to carry out a traditional unionizing campaign.

“To get the kind of prices you see at Wal-Mart, the supply chain is where they squeeze the cost out,” said Meinster. “Whether for warehouse workers or truck drivers or Renzenberger drivers, the downward pressure on wages is the same issue.”

The UE sees Renzenberger as part of their larger Warehouse Workers for Justice campaign, which aims to bring together the tens of thousands of warehouse and other logistics industry workers with surrounding community members and faith-based leaders to demand more sustainable and responsible practices from the industry. 

Contract negotiations will soon get underway at Renzenberger. Meinster expects the negotiations to be contentious, since the company “ran a classic anti-union campaign” including captive audience meetings and threats during the organizing drive.

“They tried as hard as they could to intimidate the workers, but people stood strong,” he said.

Kari Lydersen, an In These Times contributing editor, is a Chicago-based journalist and instructor who currently works at Northwestern University. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Chicago Reader and The Progressive, among other publications. Her most recent book is Mayor 1%: Rahm Emanuel and the Rise of Chicago's 99 Percent. She is also the co-author of Shoot an Iraqi: Art, Life and Resistance Under the Gun and the author of Revolt on Goose Island: The Chicago Factory Takeover, and What it Says About the Economic Crisis. Look for an updated reissue of Revolt on Goose Island in 2014. In 2011, she was awarded a Studs Terkel Community Media Award for her work. She can be reached at [email protected]

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