CHICAGO — Warehouse workers in the Chicago metropolitan area and in the Inland Empire region of southern California — two of the nation’s largest logistical hubs — filed a letter of complaint and a petition Thursday with Wal-Mart. Both group are demanding that the retail colossus take responsibility for the behavior of contractors who frequently violate state and federal laws as they provide workers for Wal-Mart warehouses.
Wal-Mart tries to avoid any responsibility for workers in much of its fabled logistics system by relying on a complex and easily changed arrangement of principal and secondary contractors. Earlier this month, Chicago-area workers in Warehouse Workers for Justice (WWJ) sued Schneider Logistics, operator of many Wal-Mart warehouses, and one of its labor subcontractors for violation of federal laws in its abrupt firing of workers, many of whom had complained of not receiving pay they were owed.
At the same time, California-based Warehouse Workers United (WWU) won an injunction instructing Schneider not to proceed with planned dismissals of 100 workers on Feb. 24. On Thursday, about 100 demonstrators from labor, community and small business organizations chanted “wage theft is a crime/pay your workers or do the time” while picketing a downtown Chicago Wal-Mart Expresss.
Meanwhile, a delegation including warehouse workers presented the local store manager a letter demanding that Wal-Mart abide by its own statement of “Standards for Suppliers.” They asked Wal-Mart to launch a formal ethics investigation of sub-contractor Eclipse Advantage and to establish a Responsible Contractor Policy, the goal of WWU as well in its petition to the company.
Beyond providing enforcement of both the company’s ethics standards and state and federal laws, a responsible contractor policy would make it easier for long-time temp workers to become permanent workers with seniority provisions and opportunities to advance; guarantee equal pay for equal work, decent benefits and a living wage for all workers; and respect workers’ right to organize without interference to bargain collectively,according to WWJ.
Chicago Neighborhoods First (CNF), a coalition of labor, community and business groups, embraced the warehouse workers’ cause as part of its concern about Wal-Mart’s destruction of many small businesses and harmful transformation of neighborhood economic development strategies. Suzanne Keers, executive director of Local First Chicago, a coalition of hundreds of businesses and neighborhood Chambers of Commerce, says her organization joined CNF as part of its campaign to “re-localize the economy” and make the urban economy “local, fair and green.” Their unusual foray into labor-related issues is not a big stretch for most members, Keers says.”Our view is that all businesses need to obey the law,” Keers says. “Most of our members say we’d never act like Wal-Mart. Why should a global corporation get away with it? They don’t want to see workers treated unfairly.”
And for their part, WWU deputy director Guadelupe Palma says, “these workers are standing strong, demanding Wal-Mart take responsibility for their jobs.”
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.