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Working In These Times

Monday, Nov 1, 2010, 9:51 am

The Buzz: Warehouse Workers Bridge Racial Divides, Push Reform Legislation

BY Kari Lydersen

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Cindy Marble (center) is among the Warehouse Workers for Justice organizers building bridges between African-American and Latino workers.   (Photo by Kari Lydersen)

On Friday night Reverend Craig Purchase saw a nature program about aggressive hornets who terrorize bees, slicing the heads off worker bees and gobbling up their hives. But the bees are able to beat the hornets by surrounding them in a suffocatingly hot buzzing “bee ball.”

The show inspired Purchase, the pastor of a suburban Chicago church, for a meeting of warehouse workers and allies that held on Saturday. Part of the Warehouse Workers for Justice campaign, the meeting aimed to bring African-American and Latino warehouse workers together in the fight for decent wages and working conditions and an end to the highly exploitive temporary staffing structure that characterizes the industry…and leaves many workers too afraid to speak up.

“Like the bees come together to win against these big hornets, by baking them out, that’s what we’ve got to do,” smiled Purchase of Mt. Zion Full Gospel Tabernacle Church in Joliet. “It’s time for us to come together and generate some heat. We’ll get these two communities together and march and fuss and complain until we get something done.”

Before the Warehouse Workers for Justice campaign started two years ago, labor conditions and other impacts of the massive "logistics industry" in Chicago’s southwest suburbs were rarely discussed. The industry received significant government subsidies and tax breaks for the promise of jobs. Now, Purchase and a growing number of workers say, the industry needs a drastic overhaul -- and people need to stand together to demand it.

In recent months, building bridges between Latino and African-American workers has been a major focus of the campaign. In its early days Latino workers, particularly at warehouses for vacuum-maker Bissell and Wal-Mart, took the lead. But overall African-American workers have tended to be more active, thanks in part to strong bases in local African-American churches.

Supervisors and managers in the warehouses are known for stoking racial tensions through widespread discrimination and pitting workers against each other—hence relations between African American and Latino workers are often fraught or distant, they say. Now community leaders and workers among both groups aim to change that.

At the meeting in a large Latino church Saturday, many Latino workers who had not previously been involved with the campaign shared horror stories including rampant sexual harassment and age and gender discrimination, intimidation by supervisors, wages unfairly docked, overtime pay denied and arbitrary firings and retaliation.

Workers reported being asked a long list of intrusive, demeaning and irrelevant questions when applying for warehouse jobs, including the names of their parents. An Ecuadorian worker complained of a long list of insulting “what would you do if” questions which insinuated “they think we’re all thieves.” His wife added that workers are forced to work extremely fast, and any mistake is used as an excuse for firing. She noted that they are also penalized for being late as they are waiting in long lines to punch their time card, and workers who complain are regularly retaliated against.

Others told stories of young female workers being forced to have sex with managers. “Their stories are horrible, just horrible, it brings tears to your eyes,” said Purchase.

The meeting came three days before the election, where the logistics industry has become a significant campaign issue for elected officials including incumbent state senator A.J. Wilhelmi. Warehouse Workers for Justice organizers noted that various candidates have promised to demand improvements from the logistics industry – once they are re-elected.

“They want us to be on their side, so they have to show us they are on our side,” said Warehouse Workers for Justice leader Tory Moore, who was a “temporary” warehouse worker for six years in the same facility, with grueling conditions including 110-degree temperatures inside truck trailers he unloaded in the summer.

Warehouse Workers for Justice has helped draft legislation that would require any logistics companies in the forthcoming Centerpoint II Intermodal facility pay a living wage to all workers, employ at least 80 percent direct hires, account for their ratio of direct to temporary hires and commit to enforcement provisions for these measures, including protections against retaliation for workers who report violations.

Campaign organizers expect the legislation to be introduced next legislative session, and they plan to take busloads of people to Springfield – Illinois’ capitol – to lobby for it. “I really hope we can make some changes,” said Moore. “I think we can.”

Kari Lydersen, an In These Times contributing editor, is a Chicago-based reporter, author and journalism professor at Medill at Northwestern University, where she is fellowship director of the Social Justice News Nexus. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Chicago Reader and The Progressive, among other publications. Her books include Mayor 1%: Rahm Emanuel and the Rise of Chicago's 99 Percent., Shoot an Iraqi: Art, Life and Resistance Under the Gun and Revolt on Goose Island: The Chicago Factory Takeover, and What it Says About the Economic Crisis.

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