Hundreds of people gathered at a major Walmart distribution center Monday in Elwood, Illinois, to stand in solidarity with workers who have been on strike since mid-September in response to unsafe working conditions and unfair wages.
“No one should come to work and endure extreme temperatures, inhale dust and chemical residue, and lift thousands of boxes weighing up to 250 lbs with no support. Workers never know how long the work day will be—sometimes its two hours, sometimes its 16 hours. Injuries are common, as is discrimination against women and illegal retaliation against workers who speak up for better treatment,” Warehouse Workers for Justice states on its official website.
The discrimination aspect of this list of grievances includes widespread sexual harassment and intimidation of female warehouse workers, an epidemic largely ignored by the establishment media, even among individuals, such as The New York Times’s Nicholas Kristof, known for focusing on female worker equality and empowerment in other countries.
“When I worked at the Walmart warehouse in Elwood, I was sexually harassed on a regular basis…. I literally got locked inside a trailer because that’s what the men thought I was there for…. I reported it to my supervisor, but he didn’t do anything about it,” said Ulyonda Dickerson, a worker at the Walmart warehouse in Elwood, in a report released by Warehouse Workers for Justice.
“I told the supervisors about it, but they definitely don’t listen. One supervisor I had tried to tell said, ‘I didn’t see that.’ Just because you didn’t see it, doesn’t mean it didn’t happen,” said Samantha Rodriguez, a former Elwood warehouse employee. “When I went to another supervisor about the harassment, he asked me out on a date. I said no, and eventually I got fired.”
In response to Monday’s peaceful protester, riot police from Will County and Elwood were unleashed on the crowd, and witnesses tweeted a series of disturbing photos, including officers in full riot regalia (face shields, clubs and body armor) and what appears to be a Long Range Acoustic Device (LRAD) vehicle.
There was some confusion about the police’s jurisdiction on Twitter with individuals speculating the officers were private police given their “paramilitary” appearance.
Photos from the protest show officers restraining some protesters with zip-ties after police declared the event an “unlawful assembly.” Ultimately, seventeen peaceful protesters were arrested, and activists sang “We Shall Overcome” as they were cuffed and walked to a police transport unit.
Elwood police Chief Fred Hayes said, “Police officers always have to prepare for the worst thing that could possibly happen.”
Among those arrested were Will County Board member Jackie Traynere, the Rev. Craig Purchase of Mount Zion Tabernacle Church in Joliet, the Rev. Raymond Lescher of Sacred Heart Church in Joliet and Charlotte Droogan, lay minister at Universalist Unitarian Church of Joliet, the Southtown Star reports.
Mike Compton, one of the striking warehouse workers who walked off the job, said after working at the warehouse for three months, he was a veteran worker because the turnover is so high. He said everyone quits because “They call us bodies and that’s what we feel like.”
Walmart, famous for union-busting and employee abuse, is heavily subsidized by the state i.e., US taxpayers with many of its employees relying on food stamps and state-run health insurance for survival.
Despite these dire working conditions, Walmart claims the WWJ is out to fulfill a nefarious agenda.
This isn’t really about Walmart at all,” said company spokesman Dan Fogleman. “… The union is focused on fulfilling its own agenda.”
WWJ is a “union-funded, union-backed” organization that wants more union members who pay dues that can be used by union bosses on their political agenda, Fogleman said.
WWJ spokeswoman Leah Fried responded, saying WWJ is 95 percent funded by foundations and donations, and while the union is supporting the group, so are many others.
“It’s so incredible that his response for people not getting paid for heavy, difficult labor is to say it’s just a union-backed thing,” she said. “They feel it’s somehow OK for this to go on in their warehouses.”
The action in Elwood follows a walkout of non-union workers at a large Walmart warehouse near Riverside, California, that recently ended after fifteen days due to a combination of factors, including Walmart saying it would “review contracts and look into third-party monitoring of all contractors” and workers’ family financial problems. In These Times journalist David Moberg credits the Riverside action for inspiring the September 15 walkout by thirty-plus workers at Walmart’s huge Elwood warehouse.
The Illinois workers were angry about poor working conditions and apparent retaliation by their employer, a Walmart contractor, against four workers who filed a lawsuit over subminimum wages.
The lawsuit is the sixth filed by Elwood workers in three years. Three prior suits have resulted in settlement payments to workers. The latest claims that Roadlink Workforce Solutions—one of four subcontractors providing long-term “temporary” workers to Schneider Logistics, which operates the warehouse for Wal-Mart—frequently failed to pay overtime and minimum wage, in violation of federal, state and local laws.
Workers at both Walmart warehouses cite similar complaints: wage theft, harassment, safety hazards, being denied breaks and working in extreme conditions, such as high temperatures with inadequate water.
This “snowballing” of labor actions isn’t limited to Walmart employees, of course, as Steven Ashby noted recently in the Chicago Tribune.
“Teachers go on strike in Chicago and Lake Forest. Chicago symphony musicians walk out. Machinists walk picket lines in Joliet, and Walmart warehouse workers stop working in Elwood. Governor Pat Quinn gets chased from the state fair by angry government workers, and talk of a state workers strike is rumbling,” Ashby wrote.
Historical change is often best understood by looking at turning points — key moments when history began to dramatically change. Three citywide labor strikes in 1934 ended a period of relative passivity and heralded the country’s largest and most successful worker uprising. The 1955 Montgomery bus boycott initiated the nation-changing civil rights movement.
So are Wisconsin, Occupy and the CTU strike another turning point that future historians will see as the beginning of a new mass workers’ movement demanding social change?
If I was a betting man, I’d put my money on it.
For more of Allison Kilkenny’s protest coverage, check out her latest on the first anniversary of Occupy DC.