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Rev. Craig Purchase of Mt. Zion Tabernacle Church in the Chicago suburbs thinks that if Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. were alive today, he would certainly be supporting the Warehouse Workers for Justice.
So Purchase rallied clergy to call for a boycott of the vacuum and cleaning products company Bissell until it reinstates about 70 workers fired in November for trying to organize with the UE (United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America), the union that spearheads the Warehouse Workers for Justice campaign. (David Moberg and Roger Bybee wrote about the campaign here and here, respectively, last month.)
Pastors and community supporters gathered on Martin Luther King Day to announce the boycott at a church in Joliet, in the southwest Chicago suburbs that are home to the many warehouses that form a crucial link in the movement of consumer goods nationwide.
The pastors, including one who serves as a county commissioner, said they are disappointed and angry to learn of unfair and even illegal practices at the warehouses, since civic leaders have lobbied for the facilities in the past as a sorely needed source of jobs.
Many of Purchase’s parishioners work at the warehouses, as do his two adult sons.
“I begged them not to, because they treat the workers with such contempt,” he said. “I know the economy’s bad but that’s no reason to break the law. They’re paying slave wages and acting like it doesn’t matter what they do to people. These are multi-billion-dollar companies. They don’t need to treat people like that. We are saying we are not going to tolerate it.”
Local faith leaders informed the company of the boycott and requested a meeting.
Stephen Jackson, of the Social Justice Ministry at the Joliet Catholic Diocese, got a letter from Bissell saying that it contracts with a logistics company (Maersk Distribution Services) which in turn contracted with another company (Roadlink Workforce Solutions) to hire staff. Roadlink’s one-year contract with Maersk expired in January 2010. Regardless, say UE organizers, that doesn’t explain why 70 workers were fired in November, before the contract was up, allegedly in retaliation for organizing with the UE and filing federal and state unfair labor practice charges.
“We have no information that Maersk has done anything wrong in the way it has operated the facility,” says the letter from Bissell spokesperson Ann Lamb. A letter from the president of Maersk to Jackson called allegations of unfair practices “simply untrue,” and says, “We would suggest that you suspend your efforts and make sure you have a full understanding of the facts before pursuing an unjust and inappropriate boycott.”
“They claim they’re doing nothing wrong, so why won’t they meet with us?” Jackson said.
Monica Morales, 19, was among those fired in November. She and her mother Maria, who also worked at Bissell, have been unable to find other work since. She hopes a larger outcome of the Bissell campaign will be forcing warehouses to hire employees directly rather than through temp agencies.
Purchase said many young people in his parish end up working as temps for the same company for years on end.
“They’re trapped in this year after year, they have nowhere else to go,” he said. “The companies hire the temp agency but they still have to be responsible for what goes on in their house.”
As is often the case with multiple levels of subcontractors, the employment situation of the Bissell workers was unclear to them. Several former workers said they thought they were hired directly by the company, and they were never told it was only a one-year contract.
“They should have told us, so we wouldn’t buy a car or a house,” said Daniel Millan, 30, who connected Bissell workers with the UE after seeing a flier about the Warehouse Workers for Justice campaign at his church last fall.
Morales noted that the company would force them to work 11- and 12-hour days, but make sure they never went over 40 hours a week to avoid paying overtime. Sometimes she would work in the office and be tasked with telling workers who had just driven an hour or more that they were not needed that day, and would not be compensated for their travel.
Millan said pregnant women were forced to unload trucks and lift heavy boxes. They didn’t get paid vacation time or benefits. And the company gave them money to pay for mandatory steel-toed boots and uniforms, but then deducted the cost from their paychecks.
“We’re all people, and we’re supporting our families,” said Eduardo de la O, 27. “There’s so much discrimination. They think we don’t have rights, but we do.”
While the larger goals of the campaign are many, UE organizer Abraham Mwaura stressed that their demand of Bissell is just that fired workers are reinstated and granted their legal right to organize a union. Before, workers were illegally prohibited from wearing union buttons and hats.
“It’s a big demand but it’s easy for them to do if they want to,” he said. “It’s obviously going to be an uphill battle.”
But Morales is confident it will be a successful one.
“It’s going to have a huge impact, this is definitely going to work,” she said. “By telling our stories, little by little, they’ll start listening to us.”
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