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Working In These Times

Monday, Mar 15, 2010, 1:12 pm

Fired Warehouse Workers to Vacuum-Maker: ‘Clean Up Your Act!’

BY Kari Lydersen

Workers fired from Bissell's Chicago-area warehouse in November demanded the company's attention at an international trade show in Chicago on Sunday, March 15.   (Photo courtesy Kari Lydersen)

CHICAGO—Marketers for Bissell, the vacuum and cleaning products company, came to the International Home and Housewares Show at Chicago’s convention center last weekend to sell their latest products to Wal-Mart, Target, Kohl’s and other major retailers.

But while displaying their wares, company representatives got a clear message from workers fired last fall after filing discrimination and unfair labor practice charges. Fired workers were joined by about 100 supporters rallied by the UE union, which is advocating for the Bissell workers as part of its larger Warehouse Workers for Justice campaign.

As I previously covered on this blog, about 70 workers were fired in November from Bissell’s warehouse in suburban Will County—part of a massive distribution hub where 150,000 workers process retail goods coming from overseas for transport throughout the nation. Female Bissell workers were often paid $2.50 per hour less than men for the same jobs – which they say is especially ironic since women purchase the bulk of homecare products.

“It’s total discrimination,” said Cindy Marble. “I was fired simply in retaliation for standing up for myself.”

Through the UE and local clergy, the workers are demanding restitution and ideally rehiring with fair pay and improved working conditions. Most of the workers have been so far unable to find other jobs.

“Bissell, clean up your act!” chanted the crowd, led by Rev. Craig Purchase of Mt. Zion Tabernacle, on the sidewalk outside the convention center. Upon learning that Bissell representatives were watching from inside, the group spread out across the length of the lawn and pumped their fists or shook their fingers directly at the glass façade.

“These vacuum cleaners are made in sweatshops in China, and guess who has to move them, in sweatshop conditions right in Obama’s back yard,” said campaign organizer Abraham Mwaura. “These multinational companies moved overseas and what did they give us back? These minimum wage jobs.”

UE organizer Mark Meinster said a Bissell representative indicated Sunday that company officials want to talk with the workers. Meinster thinks the public pressure at the convention center made a significant impact, given that major customers like Wal-Mart and Kohl’s – also targets of the Warehouse Workers campaign – were among the 20,000-plus buyers at the show. Workers have also been leafleting at stores calling on customers to boycott Bissell products until the charges are addressed.

Past letters and calls from the union and clergy have elicited only a letter from Bissell saying the firings were carried out by a subcontractor, whose contract has ended. Most warehouse workers are hired through subcontractors – sometimes several layers of them – a common strategy in many industries wherein large companies avoid accountability for working conditions.

“Certainly we’re communicating that we’re open to straightening the situation out,” Meinster said. “It’s their warehouse. We think this is a powerful example of what warehouse workers are facing everyday across the industry. People were hearing for years that this would be so great for jobs in the area. This crystallizes the reasons it’s not.”

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 kari.lydersen@gmail.com.

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