TENNESSEE — Fifty years ago, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. lent his support to the historic Memphis sanitation workers’ strike. Today, the safe working conditions that strikers fought for in 1968 remain elusive for low-wage workers in one Memphis warehouse.
Workers at the XPO Logistics warehouse in Memphis announced in early April that they had filed a complaint to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) alleging rampant abuse, including sexual harassment. On April 3, workers held a rally with the International Brotherhood of Teamsters (IBT) to coincide with the filing of the EEOC complaint.
The complaint was triggered by an XPO worker’s death that co-workers attribute to company policies which restrict workers from leaving the job. In October 2017, Linda Neal, 58, died at work after passing out on the job. Workers allege that a supervisor denied Neal being given CPR by a co-worker. Medical reports confirmed that Neal died of a heart attack caused by cardiovascular disease.
XPO Logistics, based in Connecticut, has warehouses across the country and a market value of nearly $9 billion. The company provides transportation, delivery and logistics for Verizon, Ikea, Home Depot and other retailers. The Memphis warehouse has more than 300 permanent employees and more than 400 temporary workers.
Lakeisha Nelson, who has worked for XPO since 2014 and was close to Neal, tells In These Times, “[Neal] was a mother figure to a lot of us, and we had to become family in that building. We had to work over the puddle of blood that was left behind the next morning, and that hurt me to my core.”
Nelson believes company policy played a role in Neal’s death, recalling that an XPO supervisor would not allow Neal to leave work when she expressed she was feeling ill.
“She told them she wasn’t feeling well and this was just XPO’s policy,” says Nelson. “I don’t blame the supervisor, he was just doing his job. This is what he has to do in order to keep his job — don’t let anyone go home.”
“The only thing that’s important to XPO is them making money, and if it takes our lives to get their money, then our lives are expendable,” says Nelson. “And they tell us all, if you don’t like the way we do things, find another job. It’s very, very easy to get fired there.”
Staff workers have filed multiple complaints regarding safety hazards and dangerous working conditions, but little has been done by management to address them, according to Nelson.
Nelson says the building and ceiling are caving in while workers face harsh temperatures inside that fluctuate with the weather, and that sweaters are only allowed if they are purchased through the company.
The forgotten women of #MeToo
Sexual harassment at the company is another issue that has gone unsolved, despite attempts to get Human Resources involved, according to Nelson.
The warehouse has a history of sexual harassment. In 2015, New Breed Logistics, which was acquired by XPO in 2014, lost a $1.5 million dollar suit after a male supervisor sexually harassed three female temporary workers who were then terminated for refusing his advances.
Elizabeth Gedmark is a senior staff attorney for A Better Balance, an organization that promotes paid leave and other family-friendly policies, and which is supporting the Memphis warehouse workers. She says that low-wage workers are particularly at risk of harassment.
“The notion that you can just quit and leave your job when you’re faced with sexual harassment or discrimination does not apply to a low-wage worker needing to get by living paycheck to paycheck,” Gedmark tells In These Times. “If she does file a complaint, she faces a very real likelihood of retaliation.
“They’re very much a part of the global #MeToo movement that’s not just about movie stars or wealthy women, it’s really about these women being put front and center, the hard-working, average women who too often go unnoticed.”
Restrictive scheduling and time-off policies are also affecting XPO workers’ personal lives. Nelson claims that workers often do not know when their shift will end and have little to no notice of overtime.
Elizabeth Howley, 38, is the operational administrator for the Memphis warehouse and has been at the company for six years. Howley has also expressed concerns over poor working conditions, claiming workers have been forced to deal with bugs, snakes and other creatures infesting the workplace. But, she says, the strict hours are what have most driven emotional stress in her personal life.
Howley says that most of the women working at the warehouse are single mothers, and being separated from their families and children for long periods have taken a toll on them. When Howley’s oldest son dropped out of high school, she says, she was unable to get out of work to help get him back into school.
“I’ve lost so much time with my children in the past five or six years being with this company and it hurts because my kids are in need of me and I can’t be there for them,” Howley tells In These Times. “I had to apologize, saying ‘I’m sorry, son, I don’t have PTO time to get you back into school.’”
The Memphis XPO warehouse workers are currently working with IBT to address these issues and improve the safety conditions and end the harassment that continues in their workplace. They are in the early stages of organizing, and IBT General President James P. Hoffa has pledged to back them in their union drive. They have also earned the support of civil and women’s rights groups such as the NAACP and National Women’s Law Center.
“Maybe by exposing XPO and the conditions that they make these workers work under will bring about a change,” Felicia Walker, an international organizer for IBT, tells In These Times. “These are human beings, not animals. There are laws to protect animals from that treatment, what about humans?”