by Ben LorberThe work is grueling, tiresome and repetitive: loading nondescript boxes of all shapes, sizes and weights onto flatbed trucks to be shipped to Walmart retail stores here in Illinois and across the country. Alone or in pairs, we move in and out of the dark truck beds, stacking boxes of fifty-pound flat-screen television sets one moment, three-pound children’s toys the next. Dust stains the palms of our hands and creeps into our nostrils and lungs. Forklifts zigzag in and out of the endless rows of freight, which is stacked to the ceiling of this cavernous, 3.4 million square foot distribution center. Slivers of sunlight wink tantalizingly at us through cracks in the truck walls, and we yearn for the ten-minute cigarette break the boss will grant us every few hours.
Most of us are getting paid close to minimum wage by one of the many temporary staffing agencies hired by Walmart to staff its warehouses. As bad as the low pay, however, is the disrespect. Already this morning, I have heard the area boss refer to us as “bodies” as he allocates the day’s tasks to his floor manager underlings. He’s a tired-looking black man in his 40s, with a shaved head and a feigned smile that he shows us when he appears briefly each morning to lead us in stretches and urge us to meet the day’s productivity goals. Then he disappears into his office, emerging occasionally, clipboard in hand, to mutter directives to one of the stern, nervous floor managers, most of whom made only a couple dollars more than us freight handlers. If any of these floor managers, on their frequent rounds of the sprawling warehouse, see us taking even a moment’s rest, or determine that we have not stacked our boxes in the most compact and efficient arrangement possible, we are faced with a cold, impersonal reprimand, often coupled with a thinly-veiled threat of dismissal.
This morning, a cold, grey day in November, we are tired of the disrespect, tired of the low wages, tired of the dangerous working conditions. As the clock ticks closer to 11:00 A.M., some of my coworkers and I exchange knowing glances and nervously fingered the petitions in our pockets. Finally, at 11:01, we put down our boxes and begin to walk towards the boss’s office. As we pass the sprawling stacks of freight, we blow whistles, hoot and holler, encouraging our coworkers, waist-deep in boxes, to follow suit. Those who have helped us plan this action step out of the trucks they’re loading and join us. Others, impressed by the growing stream of dissent, decide spontaneously to join, while still others linger, hesitating, and finally decide to watch from afar.
As we approach the area boss, an assembled delegation of activists, union leaders, religious figures, and community members enter the warehouse to show their support for us. Our demands, outlined in the petitions, which are signed by over two hundred of our fellow workers, are simple: a living wage, better working conditions, job security, dignity, and respect.
The boss stares, dumbfounded, when suddenly confronted with the strength of worker solidarity. He does not take our petitions, nor does he offer to speak with us at a later date; he fixes his gaze coldly in the distance, his bottom lip quivering slightly, and then storms off, ordering the security guards to escort us from the premises. “That was an exhilarating feeling, to show the boss we weren’t afraid to stand up for our rights,” says Lindsay, a warehouse worker, at the end of the the day’s action. “I didn’t feel like a machine anymore, that they could use and throw away; I felt like a human being.”
I, too, felt like a human being, and emboldened by the closeness and solidarity I now felt with coworkers around me. For months, we had been sharing cigarettes outside during our smoke break, and laughing together in the break room during our lunch break. We had been giving each other rides to and from work, and sharing stories, while knee-deep in boxes, about lovers, families, children, sports teams, other jobs. For months, too, I and a close cadre had been slowly, methodically preparing for this day, carefully agitating our fellow workers to take action on the job. Many scoffed at our hatred of the low pay, saying “I’ll take what I can get.” Others agreed with us in principle but were afraid to take action. Still others signed up eagerly, with the giddy excitement of a school kid finally invited to play ball with the big kids.
Many of us were fired that day, but thanks to lawsuits filed on our behalf by local worker organizations, we were eventually reinstated and awarded back pay for the time spent unemployed. It was not our first battle, nor would it be the last. Earlier, in September, over thirty workers at our warehouse had won a three-week long strike for better working conditions, dignity and respect. The strike had attracted nationwide publicity and support, and after it ended, floor managers did show more respect for workers, working conditions were improved, and higher wages were paid by some temp agencies. “I went on strike because I was tired of being treated like an animal,” said Mike Compton, who struck in September and then participated in our workplace action two months later. “I was tired of the low pay, tired of being forced to work overtime, tired of being let go by these temp agencies for no reason. I knew I deserved better.” Compton now heads the Warehouse Workers Organizing Committee (WWOC), a group which brings Chicago-area warehouse workers together to fight for their rights on the job.
Workers in Walmart’s suppy chain in Southern California had also gone on strike, before our action in Illinois, to protest the lack of regular breaks, inadequate access to drinking water, and improperly functioning equipment in their Walmart warehouse. Like me and my coworkers, these workers are paid as little as $8 an hour, and are often made to move boxes in over 100-degree California heat.
None of this is accidental for Walmart, which exploits not only those who move its goods but also those who work in its stores. In the last decade, the company has paid hundreds of millions to settle class-actions lawsuits by workers in Missouri, Colorado, Pennsylvania, and other states who were forced to work off-the-clock, denied overtime pay, and not allowed to take rest or lunch breaks. From Illinois to California, workplace injury is common in warehouses, and the temp agencies that staff them for Walmart offer no health care plans. Job security is ephemeral, and low wages, lack of benefits, poor working conditions, and other ills combine to give warehouse work one of the higher turnover rates in the country. As for the company’s retail store “associates,” Walmart claims to pay them a living wage, but research by independent groups such IBISWorld put the average hourly wage of a store worker at less than $9 in 2011, for an average annual income of $15,500.
As a result, even after years of employment, Walmart workers struggle to support their families, and often rely upon government assistance to survive. According to national policy resource center Good Jobs First, in twenty-one of twenty-three states that have disclosed information, Walmart has the largest number of employees supported by publicly funded health insurance of any employer. (Meanwhile, the six heirs to the fortune of Walmart’s founder, Sam Walton, have as much combined wealth as the poorest 40 percent of our nation.)
[caption id="attachment_21784" align="alignleft" width="300"] Occupy Milwaukee lights up the highway.[/caption]
These days, workers in Walmart’s retail stores are fighting back. In November, one week after we marched our petition to the boss, a series of Black Friday strikes shook Walmart retail stores in a hundred cities across forty-six states. Walmart associates walked off the job on the busiest shopping day of the year, the Friday after Thanksgiving, and were joined by activists, organizers and community members in lively, coordinated protests outside the stores. This action, the largest and most militant yet in the decades-long attempt to organize Walmart, was spearheaded by the Organization United for Respect at Walmart (">OUR Walmart), a worker advocacy group sponsored by the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW), a union that claims nearly Walmart 3,000 associates as members. The warehouse worker strikes in Illinois and California, meanwhile, were orchestrated by union-backed worker centers, embedded in local communities, which offer warehouse workers a space in which to organize collectively for power on the job, and to learn about their rights, about taking legal action against employers, and about gaining access to resources.
This is not the first time that labor organizations have tried to unionize the notoriously anti-union retail giant. Since the 1970s, Walmart has pioneered a slew of sophisticated and aggressive, legal and illegal tactics to subvert workers’ attempts to unionize. From havens of cheap mass-production labor like Bangladesh — where a horrific fire at a garment factory that produced clothes for Walmart killed 112 workers last year — to the manufacturing plants, warehouses and trucking corporations that produce and distribute Walmart goods in the U.S., workers throughout Walmart’s supply chain are forced to keep their heads low. In its concerted and obsessive effort to remain union-free, the company has also intimidated and fired workers, closed stores, and deployed attack squads of well-paid anti-union consultants, spokespeople, and lawyers. In 2000, after ten meat cutters in a Walmart Supercenter in Jacksonville, Texas voted to affiliate with the UFCW, Walmart shut down its meat-cutting department in every Supercenter nationwide, and began instead selling pre-wrapped, pre-cut and pre-labeled meat.
To keep unions out, Walmart also staffs its warehouses, and increasingly its stores, through the use of a dense web of subcontractors that stand between the corporation and its employees. This way, if workers try to unionize, Walmart can simply switch subcontractors. As a warehouse worker, I was hired, for example, not by Walmart, but by Select Remedy, a staffing company that paid, trained, and supervised my labor. The warehouse in which I worked, moreover, was owned and operated by Schneider National, which ships products exclusively to Walmart stores. These various staffing agencies and supply-chain logistics companies, as they compete to win Walmart’s favor, scramble to squeeze labor costs to the bare minimum, while enabling Walmart to avoid responsibility for the miserable working conditions, consistent wage and hour violations, and myriad other labor abuses that invariably result.
The fight against Walmart rages at the front lines of the contemporary American labor movement, but it does not stand alone. Throughout the country, workers in other low-wage sectors of the economy such as fast food, retail and domestic work are also struggling for their rights. In April and May, fast-food chains were hit by seven work stoppages and one-day strikes in Seattle, Milwaukee, Chicago, and New York City. In late July, hundreds of workers walked off the job for a day at Burger King, Pizza Hut, McDonalds, Wendy’s, Macy’s, Victoria’s Secret, and other low-wage corporate behemoths.
These workers are seeking to organize and pressure employers through unconventional means. While in a typical strike most or all of an employer’s workers walk off the job together, this is an unrealistic prospect for today’s fast food and retail workforce, where a disempowered “take what you can get” mentality eats away at the solidarity needed for a culture of unionism to take root. The strike at my Walmart warehouse in September, for example, saw just thirty-six workers presenting their petitions in a warehouse staffed by hundreds. Decades of corporate-friendly labor legislation has also constrained and, in many ways, crippled the power of workers to walk off the job, picket, and win union recognition.
Instead, local workers’ centers and campaigns like OUR Walmart, Chicago's Fight For Fifteen, and New York City's Fast Food Forward are bringing a militant minority of workers into the public spotlight and launching a media and political effort to pressure the world’s largest corporations to give all employees secure, living-wage jobs. While these activist workers and campaign strategists do not expect to win a union contract in the near future, they do hope to escalate the pressure and form broad coalitions with other progressive organizations and movements that can gain improvements in wages and working conditions and set the stage not only for a union at Walmart but for the revitalization of America’s labor movement.
In January, the federal government announced that private sector unionization has reached a historic low of 6.6 percent — a far cry from the middle of the 20th century, when rates of over 30 percent ushered working Americans into the middle class. “We need a union,” said Peter, a Walmart warehouse worker who went on strike last September and is currently back in the warehouse, trying, along with others, to organize coworkers to fight for their rights on the job. “We need a union, and the workers who make Walmart’s products in factories in China and Bangladesh need a union, and the workers who drive the trucks that carry those products from the sea ports to the warehouses and to the stores need a union, and the workers in the stores need a union. We all need a union, and if we can change Walmart, we can change the entire economy.”
This is not idle talk. “Most of us live in the Walmart economy,” wrote labor journalist and former organizer Josh Eidelson in a December 2012 article for The Nation. “Its model has been forced on contractors and suppliers, adopted by competitors, and mimicked across industries.” Because Walmart sets the standard for today’s globalized system of retail and distribution, significant reforms in wages, benefits and working conditions won at Walmart would very much spill over into the rest of the economy and improve the standard of living for millions of workers throughout the entire global retail industry.
When I first started working at the Walmart warehouse, my coworkers and I knew that we were being exploited, yet we did nothing. “We should be making more than $9.25 an hour for this, when Walmart is making thousands of dollars in profit every time we load a truck,” we said to each other, and yet we did nothing. “We should be hired as real employees, not as temps who never know if we’re coming in to work the next day,” we said to each other, and yet we did nothing. “We should have a union,” we said to each other, in hushed voices,and yet we did nothing. When, finally, we stood up and fought back, at least we could say to each other, “Now we’ve done something.”
When I recall the moment we delivered our petitions to our boss, I think of the words spoken by a Chicago retail striker on August 1st, during the latest wave of Fight for 15 fast food and retail strikes. “There is a moment in a person’s life,” she explained. “when she stops asking and starts demanding. She gets a little taller. Her will becomes like iron and she refuses to consent to be pushed around, ever again. This is that moment.”
Ben Lorber is a journalist, activist, and organizer in Chicago. He has written for a variety of progressive publications, and has been active in the Palestinian solidarity movement, the migrant justice movement, and workers’ struggles in the U.S. He is a graduate of Bard College with a degree in philosophy and has been a working musician in Baltimore. He can be reached vie email here and he blogs here.