A Walmart distribution center. (Flickr/Walmart Corporate)
The National Labor Relations Board has issued a complaint against four companies involved in staffing and managing Walmart’s largest distribution center in the United States. The NLRB complaint—similar to an indictment—alleges that the companies repeatedly threatened and punished warehouse workers for labor organizing, including by firing activists involved in a September strike that helped to inspire November’s Black Friday retail walkout.
“They had targeted the organizers ever since we got back to the warehouse,” Philip Bailey, one of the fired workers, told The Nation Monday.
The Labor Board complaint, issued February 28, alleges that in order to discourage the Elwood, Illinois, warehouse workers from organizing, managers from the four companies—Roadlink Workforce Solutions, Skyward Employment Services, Select Remedy and Schneider Logistics—repeatedly broke the law. This included illegally threatening workers with firing or arrest; punishing employees by cancelling their breaks and increasing their workload; making workers believe they were under surveillance; and terminating six activist workers on November 10.
Leah Fried, a spokesperson for the union-backed group Warehouse Workers for Justice, said Wednesday that the NLRB had also found merit in an additional round of charges, alleging that the Walmart sub-contractor Roadlink illegally fired three more workers after they delivered a petition to management on November 17. (Roadlink and the NLRB did not immediately respond to inquiries from The Nation.)
Walmart did not respond to requests for comment; neither did Walmart contractor Schneider Logistics, which directly or indirectly employs the other three defendants. Walmart itself is not named as a defendant in the complaints, which come as the retail giant faces heightened scrutiny and scattered protests over conditions throughout its supply chain.
The Elwood distribution center plays a key role in that chain, and has recently become an epicenter of worker activism. Organizers say that 70 percent of Walmart’s total imports to the United States travel through the Elwood facility, which is owned by Walmart. Since 2011, some employees in the non-union facility have been organizing with the Warehouse Workers Organizing Committee, a group backed by the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America (UE) union.
Bailey told The Nation that workers were driven to organize by low pay, disrespectful management and unsafe conditions. When he started, said Bailey, “there really wasn’t a day in there where wasn’t an injury.” When one worker “got his shin busted open by a cart,” he added, management “made him drive himself to the clinic” and return to work the same day, while medicated.
In September, the same week as their counterparts at a Walmart warehouse in California, three dozen Elwood workers went on strike. Their three-week work stoppage included a rally and community civil disobedience action which caused a temporary shutdown of the distribution center. The Elwood employees won perhaps the most concrete victories of the past months’ wave of Walmart strikers: contractors re-hired workers who strikers alleged had been fired for organizing, and paid all of the strikers’ full wages for their time on strike.
Bailey, who was among the workers who won his job back during the strike, said that when he and his co-workers returned to work, “people were pretty inspired to see that you could take action and keep your jobs.” Certain safety issues were fixed, and “the managers were certainly a lot more polite, for a while anyway.” But at the same time, charged Bailey, “they were certainly trying to get the organizers out of the warehouses” once again.
The second week in November, Roadlink fired Bailey for a second time; he told The Nation that he was falsely accused of affixing union stickers to surfaces at work. The NLRB complaint alleges that Roadlink and Skyward terminated workers “in order to discourage employees” from taking collective action. Three more firings followed workers’ November 17 delivery of a petition demanding living wages, workplace safety and an end to retaliation. Fried, of the UE-backed WWJ, told The Nation that she has been told the NLRB is reaching out to Roadlink about negotiating a settlement to reinstate fired workers.
But Bailey, while welcoming the news that the NLRB was pursuing the case, expressed little hope that legal avenues would win him back his job, or give pause to his employers. Echoing a long-time complaint of pro-labor advocates and academics, Bailey said that the NLRB’s slow process and paltry penalties would offer “no disincentive to Roadlink or Schneider or Walmart at all.” “They’re not terribly afraid to break labor law,” he said, “because there’s not really a penalty for doing so.”
The NLRB is the main federal agency charged with interpreting and enforcing labor laws covering private sector workers. Charges against unions or employers trigger investigations; if sufficient evidence is found and no settlement is reached, the NLRB General Counsel’s office issues a complaint. Defendants can contest the allegations in a hearing before a judge, and appeal any ruling to the NLRB members appointed by US presidents, and to federal court (in addition, a January DC Circuit Court ruling has inspired some companies to contest the legitimacy of unfavorable NLRB rulings). The Elwood case is among dozens of Walmart-related charges currently before the Labor Board.
Two of the companies named in the complaint, Roadlink and its subcontractor Skyward, have contracts for the Elwood facility that are set to expire on April 30. Fried, of the WWOC-allied WWJ, expressed concern that Walmart could attempt to evade accountability by getting Schneider to replace Roadlink with a different sub-contractor. “Really, the problem is not these individual temp agencies,” said Fried. Rather, “Walmart is ultimately responsible for what goes on in their supply chain.”
Fried told The Nation that without winning “basic respect” for workers’ rights against retaliation, organizing in the warehouses will “be very, very hard.” Fried added that the NLRB “on its own is not going to be able to change conditions in that warehouse. It has to be in conjunction with a community, and a workforce, that is united and standing up for real change.”
“Between the factors of contingent work and the massive turnover,” said Bailey, “it makes it very difficult to keep your fellow workers together and build some kind of ongoing relationship that you can get things done with folks.” Bailey, who came to Illinois from Michigan for work, has returned to Detroit to look for a new job. Still, he said, “the struggle continues.”
The Labor Board investigations follow recent protests elsewhere in the Walmart supply chain. On March 1, a group of non-union warehouse workers from the union-affiliated group Warehouse Workers United attempted to deliver a petition to Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer and Latino Community Foundation Chair Aida Alvarez, both members of Walmart’s board. That petition concerns WWU’s allegation that the Walmart contractor Quetico retaliated against warehouse workers after the state of California cited the company for $1 million in unpaid wages and skipped breaks. Warehouse worker Yurguin Juarez told The Nation in Spanish that he took the petition to Mayer and Alvarez because “We want them to know the problems happening in the warehouses,” and “to show the support that we have.”
The same day, garment workers in Cambodia declared victory upon winning an estimated $145,000 settlement negotiated with Walmart, H&M and two of their suppliers. Alleging that the suppliers shut down their factory without paying them legally required severance, the workers had staged a two-day hunger strike, blocked a road and demonstrated with banners calling out Walmart and H&M. Speaking through a translator, one of the workers, They Phalla, told The Nation, “The Ministry [of Social Affairs] didn’t do it. Even the union in our factory didn’t do it. So we, the workers, we did it.”
Healthcare workers, in hospitals and in homes, operate under notably unhealthy conditions. Read Bryce Covert’s analysis.