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The Workers Who Bring You Black Friday | The Nation

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The Workers Who Bring You Black Friday

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Amazon warehouse

A worker gathers items for delivery from the warehouse floor at Amazon's distribution center in Phoenix, Arizona (Reuters/Ralph D. Freso)

If warehouse jobs serve as pathways to the middle class, someone forgot to hand out road maps to my co-workers. During my time at Ingram Micro—which is divided between getting the iPad Airs out the door and packing boxes full of products mostly destined for Walmart.com customers—I’ll learn that many of my co-workers have spent years bouncing from one temp assignment to the next. “They say they might keep you on past the holidays,” a woman named Martha tells me, “but they never do.” It makes for stressful living—weeks of steady, if low-paid, work can be followed by weeks, or months, of next to nothing—but in a region with high unemployment, there aren’t many other options. Temp work is the main game in town. One count puts the number of staffing agencies in Ontario at 275. 

In the smaller warehouse, our shifts are dedicated to the iPad Air launch. A supervisor usually paces the floor while we work, occasionally calling us together to tell us to pick up the pace, or informing us of our output. (“You’ve done 18,000 units—good job!” he says after one shift, a rare word of praise.) Except when we’re waiting for pallets to arrive, we’re constantly in motion. The burliest folks in our group, men with veined forearms who drink workout shakes during breaks, take the assignment in stride. But others—like me—are soon complaining about sore hands and wrists, along with aching feet. As the line hums, workers steal a second here or there to stretch their hands and grimace. But the boxes don’t stop, and neither do we. 

“Years ago, I made $12 an hour at a warehouse,” says Carlos, an immigrant from Mexico City, during a break. “Now look at what they’re paying.” To make ends meet, he picks up side jobs as a carpet cleaner, while his wife works at a Ross distribution center in nearby Moreno Valley, earning just $9 an hour as well. “That’s why you’ve got people going back to Mexico. The jobs here don’t pay enough.” Learning new skills can help, a little. At Ingram Micro, temps trained to drive forklifts earn $10 an hour. 

The fluctuating schedule makes any work-life balance nearly impossible. At the end of one shift, we’re told to report the next day, a Saturday, at 4 am. Although there is some grumbling—“I didn’t sign up for this,” one woman complains—everyone is lined up for roll call the following morning. I stand next to Carlos, who looks exhausted. Last night, he had taken his two kids to Disneyland. He got home from the amusement park at 2 am, dressed for work and headed back out the door. “Time goes by really fast when you have kids,” he tells me, saying he has no regrets about the decision. “This is the time to be with them.”

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The problems of warehouse work—the low wages, the mad pace—are all too familiar to Javier Rodriguez. Originally from Mexico, he found construction work in the Inland Empire and for a time was pulling in $25 an hour. But jobs dried up after the housing bust. He wound up as a temp at a nearby warehouse in 2012, driving a forklift for $10 an hour, when a group of blue-shirted workers stormed into the building.

“I was watching and wondering, ‘Who are they?’” remembers Rodriguez. “That’s when the rumors and stories started that they were with the union.” 

The rumors turned out to be true, and Rodriguez signed up right away. He worked at a warehouse operated by a company named NFI, dedicated to moving Walmart goods. “You feel like you’re doing a good job, but they are always putting pressure on you to go faster,” he says. A supervisor insulted him; the heat in summer was unbearable; the water given to workers wasn’t clean. And, of course, the low wages. To make ends meet, Rodriguez had taken on a second warehouse job, and was putting in seventy hours a week. “I’d only get to see my wife and kids on the weekend,” he says.

The blue-shirted workers were members of Warehouse Workers United, a project launched in 2009 by the Change to Win labor coalition. The group seeks to get an organizing toehold in the fast-growing industry and has filed numerous lawsuits against warehouse operators, alleging rampant wage theft and dangerous workplace conditions. But WWU aims to broaden the target, moving up the supply food chain to the companies that use warehouses—known as “third party logistics providers” (3PLs)—to transport their goods. And they’re starting with the biggest target of all: Walmart. Their efforts got a big boost earlier this year, when a federal judge allowed the retail giant to be added to a class-action suit alleging widespread wage theft against Schneider Logistics and three staffing companies, in a warehouse exclusively dedicated to Walmart merchandise.

“When workers began coming to us and complaining, the common thread was Walmart,” says Guadalupe Palma, WWU’s campaign director. “As the biggest retailer, they have a responsibility to improve the conditions. These could easily be good jobs.” 

But there are significant challenges to organizing the industry. “Because of the temp nature of work, it’s very easy for a worker who speaks out to be retaliated against,” says Palma. “They might not be called back to work the following day, or have their hours decreased.” That’s exactly what happened to Rodriguez, according to the WWU. After he spoke to the media and participated in strikes over unsafe workplace conditions—leading Cal/OSHA to fine the warehouse nearly $30,000—he was fired earlier this year. Federal charges have been filed against the company, alleging retaliation, and an investigation is under way. 

Though out of work, Rodriguez is surprisingly upbeat. “The warehouses aren’t bad,” he tells me. “If they treat people better and pay us what we’re owed, the work could be very good. It is honest work. The workers are very dedicated. But right now, others are getting rich off jobs that pay us misery wages.” 

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