Teamsters practice solidarity actions at Republic Waste

Faced with the possibility that some of their fellow union members may lose their pensions, more than 1,000 Teamsters in 19 cities held “practice picketing” sessions at facilities owned by Republic/Allied Waste Services, the second largest private sanitation company in the US.

When contracts between Teamster locals and Republic, which reported revenues of $8.2 billion in 2011, come up for renewal, the company is demanding that it be allowed to replace the current Teamster pension benefit with a 401(k) savings plan.

Among Teamsters who practiced picketing were members of Teamster Local 984 in Memphis, who are currently working without a contract. The local and Republic have been negotiating a new contract, which recently expired.

The company wants to stop making contributions to the Teamsters’ pension fund and instead set up 401(k) savings plans for workers. It would match the first 3 percent of worker contributions to the plan and half of the next 2 percent of worker contributions.

Doing so according to union officials will save the company money at the expense of workers’ retirement security. Republic management told the Memphis Commercial Appeal that it didn’t know whether the change would save the company money.

While Republic is seeking concessions from its workers, it has been far more generous to its shareholders, including Bill Gates, who, according to the Teamsters, owns about $2 billion worth of Republic stock, making him the company’s largest shareholder.

Republic reported $149.2 million in second quarter 2012 profits, up 220 percent from the second quarter of 2011, resulting in a 7 percent quarterly dividend for shareholders.

To counter the company’s concession demands, the Memphis Teamsters voted earlier in October to authorize a strike if a new contract agreement could not be reached.

The company has flown in management personnel from around the country and has said that they will be used to continue sanitation services to Republic’s 200,000 customers in the Memphis area if the Teamsters go on strike or if a lockout occurs.

“The company is paying to bring these out-of-town guys in here and at the same time crying broke,” said Kevin Clark, a Local 984 member. “The company is making us train them, but they don’t know our routes. We pick up at hospitals. We pick up at schools and in neighborhoods with kids running around. From where I sit it looks like the company is more interested in throwing us to the curb than they are in taking care of customers and the community.”

Earlier this year, Republic locked out 80 Teamster Local 215  members in Evansville, Indiana over a similar dispute. The company wanted to replace the workers’ pension with a 401(k) plan. The workers rejected the company’s offer.

For six weeks, Local 215 stood its ground. During the lockout Local 215 members traveled to Republic facilities in other cities and set up picket lines, which fellow Teamsters and other union members refused to cross.

The one-day sympathy strikes disrupted Republic business in Urbana, Illinois, Wayne, Michigan, Milpitas, California, Richmond, California, and Long Beach, California.

About three weeks after the last sympathy strike, Republic management in Evansville agreed to suspend the lockout. The workers returned to work and the company and Local 215 returned to the bargaining table, but so far there has been no resolution to the dispute.

By organizing the practice picketing sessions at Republic facilities, the Teamsters appear to be reminding Republic that members throughout the country are willing to take solidarity actions to support other members who are facing the loss of an important benefit just as they did to support the Evansville workers.

“Today’s ‘just practicing’ picketing actions did not ask Republic/Allied employees to cease working,” read a statement issued by the Teamsters. “They were intended as a wake-up call to Republic/Allied executives and local elected officials that the company’s efforts to bully workers through locking them out of their jobs could instigate sympathy pickets at Republic facilities across America.”

In addition to Memphis and Evansville, Teamster sanitation workers practiced picketing at Republic facilities in Urbana, Illinois; Youngstown, Ohio; Cleveland, Ohio; Detroit, Michigan; Flint, Michigan; Adrian, Michigan; Fremont, California; Daly City, California; Fairfield, California; Gardena, California; Long Beach, California; Anaheim, California; Revere, Massachusetts; Atlanta, Georgia; Mobile, Alabama; Bellevue, Washingon; and Buffalo, New York.

UT System rebuffs ironworkers seeking justice; workers vow to escalate actions

A group of striking ironworkers and their supporters on Friday, October 26 gathered in front of the University of Texas System headquarters in downtown Austin to speak out about unsafe and unfair working conditions where they work. The group tried to meet with UT System Chancellor Francisco Cigarroa to ask him why the system hires and tolerates construction project contractors that don’t treat their workers with dignity or respect.

The UT System has planned for $1 billion worth of new construction projects over the next four years on its campuses. The demonstrators wanted to urge Chancellor Cigarroa not to hire two contractors, D’Ambra Steel Services and Great Western Erectors, for these projects unless they improve their safety record and treat their workers better.

The ironworkers said that these two contractors and others in the business of installing rebar on buildings under construction pay low wages, don’t provide health care for work related injuries, discriminate against immigrant workers, and don’t take adequate safety precautions such as providing proper access to drinking water or reliable safety equipment and gear.

When the demonstrators walked into the UT System building to ask for a meeting with Chancellor Cigarroa, the UT System officials called the police who then removed the demonstrators from the building.

“Though UT officials refused to meet, we delivered our message through the media and will continue to escalate actions until the university system takes steps to improve working conditions on their campuses,” said Ryan Haney of the Coalition for Ironworker Justice, a community-labor organization that has been helping the striking ironworkers.

In May ironworkers who work for D’Ambra walked off construction projects in Dallas to protest poor conditions. One month later, about 70 D’Ambra ironworkers at an Exxon Mobil construction site near Houston walked off the job for the same reasons.

Augustin Munos of Houston explained what led him to go on strike. Munos started to feel the symptoms of heat stroke while he was on the job. When he tried to rest, a supervisor told him to keep working.

Munos finally called his wife, who took him to a hospital where he stayed for eight days.

When he returned to work with documentation showing that his illness was work related, the company said that it wasn’t a job related illness and refused to pay for Munos’ medical expenses, which totalled about $20,000.

“I told them I need help for the days I was in the hospital and unable to work, so now I have no money and I can’t eat,” Munos said. “I’ve had to sell the title of my car to pay my rent and other things. I have to pay $20,000, but I can’t pay that on my salary, which is why I went on strike.”

Jorge Balderas of Dallas also is on strike against D’Ambra. His wife has cancer, but D’Ambra doesn’t provide health care benefits for its workers like Balderas. Before Balderas’ wife could get treatment, the hospital sent a letter to D’Ambra asking the company to verify that Balderas did not have employer health care benefits.

“They sent a letter to D’Ambra, and they didn’t respond” Balderas said. “My wife’s treatment was delayed because the company wouldn’t respond. If I’d been here [in Dallas] and hadn’t gone [to the D’Ambra office in Houston] personally, they would never have responded.”

It would be good to have a health care benefit, Balderas said. For now if you get hurt on the job, you’re on your own. “They don’t help you at all. If you get hurt and you go home, you don’t get paid,” he added. “And you have to pay for the treatment. Your loss is doubled then.”

The striking ironworkers are non-union; although, they have been receiving support from the Iron Workers Union. Some have subsequently joined the union.

The ironworkers have been trying to get public institutions such as universities and municipal governments to take a closer look at the working conditions of the contractors who work on their construction projects .

In May, a delegation of Dallas ironworkers and their supporters tried to meet with Calvin Jamison, vice-president for administration at UT Dallas. D’Ambra ironworkers had previously walked off the job at the university’s new Arts and Technology Building construction site.

The delegation wanted to tell UT Dallas officials about some of the safety problems that sparked the strike.

Instead of listening to the ironworkers, UT Dallas officials called in the campus police, who then detained the delegation and eventually escorted them off campus.

A couple of months later, a crane accident killed two workers at the project. The US Occupational Safety and Health Administration is investigating the accident. The project’s contractor and subcontractors, including D’Ambra, have denied responsibility for the accident. The owners of the crane are being sued by families of the construction workers who were killed.

San Antonio activists support tip integrity measure and Hyatt boycott

Submitted by Pancho Valdez

Between 40-50 activists came together at Travis Park United Methodist Church in San Antonio to listen to seven current and former waiters, bartender, cook and housekeepers give their testimony to a panel of academic, community activist and religious leaders. Those attending the meeting also reaffirmed their support of UNITE HERE’s boycott of Hyatt.

All seven testified that it is now a common practice for restaurants and hotels to attach a 22-23% “service charge.” This service charge has traditionally gone to workers as a gratuity, but that is no longer the case. According to those who testified, workers at the Grand Hyatt are told to lie to customers and tell them that the service charge is going to them.

At the downtown Palm Restaurant workers are told that if they don’t like the tip policy, they can work elsewhere.

The panel composed of Dr. Roger Barnes a university professor, Viola Casares program director, Fuerza Unida, Diane Duesterhoeft from First Unitarian Church, Rev. Christopher Gentile from Grace Lutheran, Senior Pastor Leslie Price of Christ Lutheran Church of Alamo Heights Judge Ron Rangel from the 175th Criminal District Court, and Rosa Rosales former national president of LULAC agreed that the practice was not only unfair, but amounted to theft on the part of the employers.

A solution to address this issue has been proposed as Mi TIA, (Tip Integrity Act) to be presented to the San Antonio City Council as an ordinance. This ordinance is supported by UNITE HERE,the hospitality workers union.

Workers along the San Antonio Riverwalk have been abused and exploited for decades. These workers have for the most part been Mexican American and women.

The meeting ended with calls to support the international boycott of Hyatt facilities, which was given support by the people gathered. UNITE HERE called the boycott to protest Hyatt’s treatment of its workers. According to UNITE HERE, “Hyatt has singled itself out as the worst employer in the hotel industry. Hyatt has abused its housekeepers and other hotel workers, replacing longtime employees with minimum wage temporary workers and imposing dangerous workloads on those who remain.”

Across the US, Low-wage workers take a stand

Car wash workers in the Bronx, New York and Walmart temporary workers in Chicago joined a growing list of low-wage workers who are standing up for their rights and respect on the job.

In the Bronx, workers at Webster Car Wash recently voted 23-5 to join the Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Union (RWDSU). “The bosses will respect us better now and see us as people,” said Webster worker Francisco Lopez to the Daily News after  the results of the union vote were announced.

Webster is owned by John Lage, who owns more than 10 percent of the 200 car washes in New York City making his company the largest car wash operator in the city. Lage is currently being investigated by the New York attorney general for wage and hour violations. In 2009, he paid $3.4 million in back pay and damages to settle a federal wage and hour lawsuit.

“These brave workers fought back against their employer, like David slaying Goliath,” said Stuart Appelbaum, president of RWDSU. “Across the city, car wash workers are standing up, speaking out and demanding that they be treated with dignity and respect.  This is a building movement.”

In Illinois, temporary workers at Walmart stores in the Chicago area filed a class action lawsuit charging Walmart and two of its temporary staffing contractors, Labor Ready and QPS, with violating federal minimum wage and overtime laws.

The suit alleges that the defendants required temporary workers at Walmart stores to report early for work, work through breaks and lunches, stay late to finish work, and attend training sessions all without getting paid for their extra work.

“I only get paid minimum wage and yet Labor Ready and Walmart still try to cheat me by not paying me for the times I actually work,” said Twanda Burk, the primary plaintiff in the suit. “I’ve proven that I’m a good worker, and they just want to take advantage of me.”

The suit also charges Walmart with failing to keep accurate pay records as required by federal and state law and for not paying temporary workers for the minimum number of hours required by state law when the workers are called to work but then sent home early.

When Walmart expanded in the Chicago area, it sought community support by promising to create thousands of jobs for residents in low-wage neighborhoods that paid at least $8.75 per hour. But Walmart has relied heavily on temporary workers paid only the minimum wage.

“By outsourcing these jobs, the company is taking advantage of Chicago residents in neighborhoods that had hoped Walmart would provide real employment opportunities, not the dead-end jobs that keep residents in a cycle of poverty,” said Elce Redmond, executive director of the South Austin Community Coalition, a Chicago low-income neighborhood organization.

The Walmart workers and the Bronx car wash workers joined other low-wage workers around the US organizing for better conditions on the job or taking class legal action to enforce existing laws that are supposed to protect workers.

At the ports of Seattle and Los Angeles, short-haul truck drivers have organized and taken collective actions for better pay and safer working conditions.

In Louisiana, workers at a seafood factory owned by a Walmart contractor walked off the job to protest slave-like conditions.

In Milwaukee, workers at Palermo’s Pizza factory went on strike to protest low pay and unsafe working conditions and have since organized a boycott of Palermo’s Pizza products.

In Houston, janitors who are members of SEIU Local 1 went on strike for a decent pay raise after the multi-national cleaning corporations for whom they work offered only a $0.10 per hour raise.

In Austin, Texas,  construction workers have organized large demonstrations at City Council meetings to demand that companies seeking city incentives and tax breaks agree to negotiate agreements that ensure that workers on the companies’ construction projects are paid a decent wage, work under safe conditions, and have training opportunities that make advancement on the job possible.

Workers at Darden restaurants such as the Olive Garden in cities like Chicago, Miami, and Washington DC have filed a class action lawsuit charging the nationwide restaurant chain with wage theft.

The idea that individual effort can lead to a better life has lost its lustre for many low-wage workers living in a high-priced economy.

At least a few of them have learned the lessons of the 1930s when collective efforts by low-wage workers in the country’s factories, mines, and transportation services over a period of time turned low-wage jobs into jobs with decent pay, benefits, and dignity.

Those of us working in moderate-pay jobs watching our living standards erode would do well to re-learn this lesson too.

Verizon workers ratify new contract

The CWA and IBEW on October 19 announced that members on the East Coast from Virginia to Maine ratified the tentative agreement that the unions reached with Verizon in September.

“The ratification vote shows that our members listened to the union’s leadership when we told them that this was the best contract we could negotiate with Verizon at this point in time,” said Bill Huber, president and business manager of IBEW Local 827 in New Jersey.  “They understood that we were facing a perfect storm of negative economic circumstances and that although this was not the best contract we had hoped to achieve, it was one that will allow us to live to continue to fight for our members and the consumers they serve.”

Neither union released any details about the ratification vote, but several CWA locals, including one of the union’s largest, Local 1101 in New York City, rejected the new contract.

Nevertheless, the contract becomes effective on October 21 and stays in effect until August 2015.

When negotiations began in June 2011, Verizon demanded a long list of concessions to bring the pay, benefits, and working conditions of its unionized Wireline workers into line with those of its non-union Wireless workers

Among other things, the company sought to freeze pensions and eliminate them for new hires, eliminate regular pay raises, reduce sick days, eliminate job security and other job protections, eliminate shift pay differentials, eliminate double-time pay, cut disability pay in half, and substantially increase employee health care costs.

The tentative agreement held the line against many of these concessions. It includes an 8 percent pay raise paid in annual increments over three years, preserves the pension benefit for current employees,  preserves the no-layoff, no forced transfer, and no downgrade language of the previous contract, preserves shift and weekend pay differentials, increases company health care funding for retirees, and restricts the company’s ability to move work outside the region.

The new contract also returns to work, 37 of the 41 workers who Verizon fired because of their strike activity; although it’s not clear whether the returning workers will receive back pay.

The new contract, however, increases out of pocket health care expenses such as premium payments, co-pays, and deductibles. Over the next three years, premiums for the PPO plan increase from $0 a month to $55 a month for individuals and $110 for families; for the HMO plan, premiums increase from $0 a month to $82.50 a month for indivuduals and $165 a month for families.

Tobacco users will pay an extra $50 a month, and those who don’t complete a health assessment risk will pay an extra $100.

For the PPO, deductibles increase over the next three years from $250 a year for individuals and $625 for families to $475 for individuals and $1187.50 for families

The maximum that a worker pays for out of pocket medical expenses also increases at about the same rate as the deductible increases.

In a letter to members urging them to  accept the tentative agreement, CWA District 1 Vice-President Chris Shelton told members that the union agreed to health care cost increases in order to win concessions from the company on other issues such as preserving pensions for current employees, job security, retiree health care, and disability benefits.

In addition to agreeing to higher health care expenses, the unions also agreed to eliminate pensions for new hires, who will now be diverted into a 401(k) savings plan instead.

Shelton said that the union didn’t want to create a two-tiered pension system, but that it would have taken a strike in order to preserve the benefit. “Ask yourself, how long would you personally be willing to stay on the street to guarantee a defined benefit pension for workers who are not yet hired,” said Shelton in his letter.”

But Local 1101 President Keith Purce urged members to reject the deal.

“We don’t believe we should settle for a concessionary contract without a fight,” Purce told members in a message posted on the local’s website.

Other Local 1101 members said that they also opposed the contract because of the concessions that the union made.

“New hires already aren’t covered by the job security protection that pre-2003 hires have,” said Pam Galpern, a Local 1101 member, to Labor Notes. “And they don’t have the same retiree health benefits as those hired before 2008, and now they won’t have a pension. (Verizon is) incrementally trying to dismantle the contract we have.”

Shelton described the negotiations as the toughest he has seen in the 44 years that he has been a CWA member.

The reason that the negotiations were so tough is that corporate power is stronger than it has been since the 1930s. At the same time, union membership at companies such as Verizon has declined. Only 7 percent of the private sector workforce is organized, and the CWA has lost half of its membership at Verizon.

Just as important is the fact that Verizon is retreating from the Wireline business and focusing more on its non-union Wireless business. The company’s CEO Lowell McAdams told investors that he envisions that the company will some day abandon much of its Wireline infrastructure, which provides jobs for most union members.

Whether the unions at Verizon will be able to stop future concessions will depend on the unions’ ability to organize workers at Verizon Wireless.

Troika wants more austerity; Greek workers honor general strike; two austerity measures ruled illegal

A committee of the European Council ruled that two Greek austerity measures aimed at curtailing labor rights are illegal. Meanwhile the European Union, the International Monetary Fund, and the European Central Bank, otherwise known as the troika, demanded that the Greek government take further steps to curtail labor rights.

The troika made its demands when its representatives met with the Greek finance minister in Brussels this week to discuss the terms of $17.7 billion loan that the Greek government is seeking to prevent default on loans that are coming due in November.

Among other things, the troika is demanding that the Greek government slash the severance pay that private sector workers receive when they are dismissed from a job, eliminate automatic cost of living raises that private sector workers receive once every three years, and fire 15,000 public sector workers.

The Greek government has already reduced pensions, frozen pay for public sector workers, substantially reduced social spending on services like education, health care, and social insurance. These and other austerity measures have caused misery throughout the country, whose unemployment rate is nearly 24 percent.

While the Greek finance minister was meeting with representatives of the troika, Greek workers on October 18 staged a general strike to protest the government’s willingness to sacrifice the short- and long-term interests of Greek working people to the desires of Europe’s financial elite, which sees the Greek economic crisis as an opportunity to eliminate rights and protections that Greek workers won through hard fought struggle over many years.

“Agreeing to catastrophic measures means driving society to despair and the consequences as well as the protests will then be indefinite,” said Yannis Panagopoulos, leader of GSEE to Reuters.

GSEE, a confederation of private sector unions, along with ADEDY, the confederation of public sector workers, organized  Thursday’s general strike.

The misery brought on by the austerity measures and the demands by the troika for more cuts has created a popular backlash against the government.

A recent poll shows that if an election were held today, the leftist Syriza party, the main opposition to the Greek government would win more than 30.5 percent of the vote, more than three percentage points higher than the 26.9 percent it won during elections last June.

New Democracy, the right wing party that leads the current coalition government had the support of only 27 percent of the people polled.

The fascist Golden Dawn, which opposes the austerity measures but also assaults immigrants and blames them for the economic crisis, increased its support to 14 percent among those polled.

Members of Syriza joined the general strike on Thursday. Speaking about the Greek government, Alex Tsipras, Syriza’s leader told  Reuters as he marched with general strikers in the streets of Athens, “Their time is running out. People are taking matters into their own hands.”

About 70,000 people marched through Athens, and commerce and transportation throughout Greece either ground to a halt or slowed noticeably. Flights were cancelled, public transportation was disrupted, and hospitals, schools and shops shut down.

The general strike and the possibility of more general strikes appears to be shaking the resolve of the government. Members of PASOK and Democratic Left, two minority parties that are part of the coalition government led by New Democracy, said that they wouldn’t accept the new changes to Greek labor laws sought by the troika.

“Further interventions on labor issues don’t help productivity, competitiveness or employment,” said Evangelo Venizelos, leader to PASOK on Greek television. “We must look elsewhere now and the (troika’s) insistence on this is wrong.”

While the troika seeks to curtail more labor rights, European Committee on Social Rights, a standing committee of the European Council, ruled that two austerity measures passed by the Greek government are illegal.

One of the austerity measures lengthens the probationary period when a worker can be fired without notice; the other reduces the minimum wage for workers 25 years old and younger to two-thirds of the minimum wage for those older than 25.

The Committee on Social Rights  serves only in an advisory role and has no power to enforce its decisions, but it is possible that the committee’s ruling could bolster legal action that Greek unions are taking to overturn some of anti-labor austerity measures that the government has implemented at the behest of the troika.

A statement issued by the committee about its ruling said that budgetary readjustments necessitated by the global economic crisis should not lead to an erosion of workers’ rights enshrined in the European Social Charter.

Grain handlers call for mediator to help resolve dispute with ILWU

The association representing Pacific Northwest grain elevator operators on October 15 requested that a federal mediator join its contract negotiations with the International Longshore and Warehouse Union. The union agreed to allow a mediator play a role in resolving the contract dispute.

The Pacific Northwest Grain Handlers Association, a consortium that represents operators of six of the nine grain elevators in Oregon and Washington in a collective bargaining agreement with the ILWU, had threatened a lockout if ILWU did not agree to concessions by the time the current contract expired on September 30.

The union refused to bow to the association’s threat, and both sides agreed to keep talking after the current contract expired.

The grain handlers are seeking new work rules that will allow it to lower labor costs. The union contends that the current work rules have brought stability and enabled productivity gains that have made grain exporting a very profitable business.

“Global grain exporters are trying to put the squeeze on the longshoremen who have worked for decades to make the Pacific Northwest grain export industry the success that it is today,” said ILWU Coast Committeeman Leal Sundet, co-chairman of the committee that negotiates the Northwest Grainhandler’s Agreement. “We have an 80-year contract with these companies, and the employer is trying to undermine the standards that have made them rich. It’s critical that workers protect the gains we’ve made over the years.”

The Grain Handlers Association is seeking changes modeled after the agreement reached earlier this year between the ILWU and EGT, the multi-national owner of the Pacific Northwest’s newest grain elevator located in Longview, Washington.

ILWU and EGT fought a pitched battle over staffing at the elevator that began in 2011 and didn’t end until February.

EGT at one time sought to use non-union labor to staff its new grain elevator. The ILWU stood up for its members’ right to work at EGT’s new facility. The union organized mass pickets, temporarily stopped the delivery of grain to the elevator, and suffered mass arrests as members and union leadership fought to protect the union’s jurisdiction over the new work at the EGT elevators.

As the union and its supporters were poised to block the elevator’s first grain delivery by sea earlier this year, the dispute was resolved when the governor of Washington Christine Gregoire intervened.

In return for winning jurisdiction over the work at EGT, the ILWU agreed to some work rule concessions. For example, the ILWU, agreed, to allow EGT to hire longshoremen for two 12 hour shifts, instead of two eight-hour shifts and one five-hour, higher paid graveyard shift as is the practice at other grain elevators.

The EGT contract also allows the company to seek damages for work stoppages and allows the company to stop using ILWU members if the union doesn’t pay damages resulting from the work stoppages or if an arbitrator rules that three work stoppages have occurred during a five-year period.

There are other work rule changes that give EGT an advantage over the other elevator operators. Now, the Grain Handlers Association is seeking changes that mirror the EGT agreement.

The ILWU says that concessions it agreed to with EGT were temporary and that it plans during future negotiations to bring the work at EGT up to union standards at the other grain elevators in the Northwest.

“The Northwest Grainhandler’s Agreement is a mature, decades-long contract that has made the Northwest one of the most productive export grain export regions in the world,” Sundet said. “The EGT contract will build in subsequent negotiations. The industry moguls are mistaken in thinking they can take advantage of a new competitor to downgrade their own successful contract.”

About one-quarter of the US’s grain exports, including half of its wheat exports, move through the Pacific Northwest ports. The grain elevators, which store the grain, are owned by large trading corporations such as United Grain Corporation, which operates an elevator at the port of Vancouver, Washington. United Grain is a private corporation owned by the Mitsui Group of Japan. Last year, it reported revenues of more than $2 billion.

TEMCO, operates elevators in Tacoma, Washington and Portland, Oregon. It is owned jointly by Cargill and CHS, Inc., both are global agribusiness corporations. According to the International Business Times, Cargill in 2011 had revenues of $119.5 billion and profits of $2.7 billion.

Columbia Grain operates an elevator at the Port of Portland. According to the company’s website, Columbia’s grain elevator is “one of the most advanced export grain facilities in the world” that has achieved high rates of efficiency and productivity. The website doesn’t mention that its elevator’s efficiency and productivity were achieved while the current work rules negotiated by the ILWU were in effect.

Hostess prepares to implement final offer, BCTGM prepares to strike

Hostess Brands workers are waiting for the company to make its next move as Hostess tries to impose a new labor contract that has been approved by a bankruptcy court. One of the unions that represents workers at the company’s bakeries, the Bakery, Confectionary, Tobacco Workers, and Grain Millers Union (BCTGM), has said that imposing the terms of the new contract will result in a strike by its members.

In September, 92 percent of BCTGM members rejected a final offer by Hostess, which in January filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. Hostess’ final offer, which cuts pay by 8 percent, freezes pensions, increases worker health care costs, and changes work rules, was a key piece of the company’s plan to exit bankruptcy.

Before BCTGM rejected Hostess’ final offer, 54 percent of Teamster members who work for Hostess and voted on the offer chose to accept it. Teamster leaders did not endorse the final offer, but told members that rejecting it could result in job losses.

Prior the voting, Hostess CEO Gregory Rayburn’s said that if either of the two unions or the 10 other unions that have smaller numbers of members working for Hostess rejected the final offer, the company would shut down and liquidate its assets.

After BCTGM members rejected the offer, Hostess changed its mind about going out of business and instead returned to court to ask the bankruptcy judge to allow the company to impose the terms of its final offer. It argued that imposing the offer was essential if the company wanted to exit bankruptcy because high labor costs had caused the bankruptcy.

Throughout the bankruptcy proceeding, both the Teamsters and BCTGM have maintained that poor management rather than high labor costs caused the business failure that resulted in Hostess’ second bankruptcy in less than ten years.

“Our members have seen this company squander more than $50 million that it was contractually obligated to put towards our members’ pension,” said BCTGM President Frank Hurt after members rejected the final offer.  “They have seen the company fail to invest in product development and new plant and equipment as was promised when the company emerged from its previous bankruptcy (in 2009) and for which our members made significant concessions.”

Last spring a business restructuring expert hired by the Teamsters testified at a bankruptcy hearing that Hostess management failed to invest sufficiently in modernizing production, hollowed out Hostess’ once dominant distribution system, and did a poor job of marketing its products.

Another expert hired by the Teamsters testified at the same hearing that Hostess’ labor costs were comparable to regional competitors.

Nevertheless, during the October hearing on Hostess’ request to be allowed to impose its final offer, the judge sided with the company and on October 4 ruled that the company could proceed with imposing its final offer on BCTGM and five other unions that either rejected the offer or are still considering it.

After winning the judges approval, Hostess said that it will impose the final offer within the next 45 days. BCTGM has said that doing so will result in a strike.

BCTGM locals have been meeting to plan for a strike if the company imposes the new terms.

After BCTGM members rejected the company’s final offer in September, Hurt explained why.

“(Members) rejected (the offer) because it was an outrageously unfair proposal from a company that has destroyed the trust of its workers through years of mismanagement, greed and unfulfilled promises,” Hurt said.

The company exited from its first bankruptcy in 2009 after both the BCTGM, the Teamsters, and other unions agreed to concessions. Teamsters estimated the cost of their concessions to be $60 million.

After the unions agreed to concessions, Hostess’ former owner Interstate Bakeries Corporation reached a deal with Ripplewood Holdings, a private equity company, for Ripplewood to purchase the company.

Ripplewood committed $130 million of its own money to the deal and borrowed hundreds of millions of dollars from General Electric Capital, GE Capital Markets, Monarch Master Funding, and Silver Point Finance.

As part of the deal, Ripplewood paid itself $3 million in management fees to oversee the restructuring of Hostess.

Hurt is wary that Hostess’ final offer to its union employees is just another way to force another round of concessions that will make Hostess more attractive to another private equity buyout.

“Our members know that this is a company that is controlled by Wall Street private equity and hedge fund firms, whose sole objective is to maximize their own returns, not rebuild a company for the long haul,” Hurt said.

Hurt said that a deal with Hostess is still possible if Hostess pays the $50 million in pension contributions that it has withheld from BCTGM members and returns to the bargaining table with a fair offer that includes a plan for long-term growth at the company.

General strike over Spanish austerity cuts possible

Spanish workers took the streets on Sunday, October 7 once again to protest the government’s  proposed austerity cuts and other measures aimed at lowering the living standards of most Spaniards. More than 60,000 demonstrators filled the streets of Madrid; similar demonstrations took place in 56 other Spanish cities.

The unions that called the nationwide demonstrations estimate that hundreds of thousands took part.

“They are taking away the health system,” said Carmen Lopez a demonstrator in Madrid to Euronews. “They are taking away our basic rights, and that’s not fair. They are reclaiming all social benefits. It’s shameful that we are losing everything.”

The overwhelming majority of Spaniards share Lopez’s sentiments. A survey whose results were published the same day as the demonstrations shows that 77 percent of Spaniards support the Sunday protests.

Spaniards are also angry that their standard of living is being cut to bail out the banks whose reckless loans caused the current financial crisis that has left 25 percent of the workforce unemployed, the highest unemployment rate in the industrial world.

Demonstrators at Sunday’s demonstrations carried signs reading, “Their plunder, my crisis,” referring to the terms of the proposed bank bailout. In order for banks to receive billions of euros to help them recover from their bad loans, the Spanish government had to promise lenders, that the government would reduce spending on education, health, pensions, and other services that enhance the quality of life for most people.

In all, the government has proposed cuts totalling 150 billion euros over the next three years.

In addition to investing less in its people, the government also agreed to a demand by lenders that the government change labor laws that protect jobs and make collective bargaining fair.

The unions that called Sunday’s demonstration told the government that the frequent anti-austerity demonstrations like Sunday’s could turn into a general strike unless the government agrees to hold a referendum on the proposed cuts.

“It’s up to the government whether there’s a general strike or not,” said Ignacio Ferndandex Toxo, leader of Spain’s largest labor federation Commisiones Obreras to Reuters. “If they were going to hold a referendum things would be completely different.”

Striking Walmart workers target Black Friday for next action

Striking Walmart workers gathered in Bentonville, Arkansas on Wednesday, October 10 and announced that their next action for change at Walmart will take place on Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving and traditionally retail stores’ biggest revenue day.

More than 100 strikers arrived in Bentonville, Walmart’s headquarters, for a demonstration during Walmart’s 19th Annual Meeting for the Investment Community, which brings together financial analysts from all over the world to hear Walmart present its plans for the future.

The strikers who left work on Tuesday and plan to return on Thursday said that while they are in Bentonville, they will try to take their demands for better jobs to Walmart’s CEO Mike Duke.

“We’re here in Bentonville to let Walmart management know why went on strike,” said Colby Harris, a Walmart worker from Dallas, who went out on strike on Tuesday. “We’re tired of them not listening to us. We’d like to talk directly to Duke about the problems that caused the strike.”

During a teleconference Harris and Evelin Cruz, a worker at a Walmart store in Pico Rivera, California, cited a number of problems that Walmart associates face every day. Low pay, unaffordable benefits, erratic scheduling that makes it difficult for workers to spend time with their families, and not enough hours of work.

But, according to Harris and Cruz , what set off the strike was Walmart’s retaliation against workers who are speaking up for change at the retail giant. “They’ve cut back hours of people who speak up to punish them,” Cruz said.

Daniel Schlademan, executive director of Making Change at Walmart, a labor-community coalition supporting Walmart workers trying to improve their jobs, said that Walmart workers have filed about 20 unfair labor practices charges against Walmart’s retaliation. In addition to cutting back hours, Walmart has fired workers and taken measures to limit free speech, he said.

Cruz and Harris belong to Organization United for Respect at Walmart (OUR), a Walmart worker led group that has thousands of members in hundreds of Walmart stores in 43 states.

On Tuesday night Cruz, Harris, and other OUR members who came to Bentonville met to plan their next move to improve their jobs.

“We’ll present our demands to management here in Bentonville,” Harris said. “And if they ignore us or fail to meet these demands, our next action will be on Black Friday. There may be more strikes, there may be rallies at stores, there may be leafletting at stores, but there will be non-violent actions at Walmart stores if our demands are not met.”

Those demands referred to by Harris include rehiring with back pay those fired in retaliation for speaking up for better conditions on the job and restoring the work hours of those whose hours were cut in acts of retaliation by the company.

The strikes that began in Los Angeles on Friday and spread to other stores in other cities weren’t intended to shut down stores; instead, their purpose was to show Walmart workers who are reluctant to join the fight to improve their jobs that workers have rights that are protected by law if they are willing to use them.

The National Labor Relations Act provides some basic protections for union and non-union workers who take collective action to improve working conditions. Among other things, workers have the right form and freely participate in organizations whose purpose is to improve working conditions.

Workers also have the right to participate in concerted efforts to protect these rights, including an unfair labor practices strike. Workers participating in an unfair labor practices strike over such things as employer retaliation cannot be fired for doing so if they return to work unconditionally, which the Walmart strikers plan to do.

The strikers hope that when their fellow workers see OUR members back on the job after the strike, those who did not walk out will realize that they too can take organized action to improve their job without the fear of being fired.

Walmart management uses fear and intimidation to stop employees from organizing for better conditions, Harris said. When we return to work, we’ll be talking to our fellow employees about how we stood up to Walmart and how this strike shows that they can do the same. This strike will show other workers that, “you’re more at risk outside our organization than inside it.”

During the teleconference, representatives of the National Organization of Women, the National Consumers League, Working for Change at Walmart, and the Labor Council for Latin American Advancement said that they would be supporting actions at Walmarts on Black Friday.

Pastor Edwin Jones of Living Faith Baptist Church and International Ministries in Washington DC said that he would also be supporting the Black Friday action.

Jones is one of the African-American community leaders who have been fighting Walmart’s expansion into Washington DC. “What we’re hearing from these workers causes us to be cautious about the jobs that Walmart says it will create if it comes to Washington DC,” Jones said. “These aren’t the kind of jobs that will make our community thrive. The pay is too low. There either are no benefits or you have to wait two or three years to be eligible for them. Then, sometimes you can’t afford them. African-Americans want good jobs that help sustain families.”

Walmart strikes spread

Workers at more Walmart stores throughout the US walked off the job on Tuesday morning (October 9) and went on strike to protest unfair labor practices at the retail giant’s stores.

Organization United for Respect at Walmart (OUR) members said that Walmart employees, or associates as the company likes to call them, are striking to protest management’s retaliation against workers who speak out for better conditions on the job.

Strikers include workers at stores in Dallas, Miami, Sacramento, the Washington DC area, Southern California, and the San Francisco Bay Area. As of Wednesday morning, the strikers have not returned to work. Support demonstrations for Wednesday, October 10 are being organized across the country.

“We cannot continue to allow Walmart’s attempt to silence and retaliate against workers continue,” said Stacy Cottongame, a worker at the Walmart Ennis, Texas store near Dallas. “Our jobs shouldn’t be on the line because we are speaking out for better jobs.”

Workers at the Ennis store walked off the job at 6:30 a.m. on Tuesday morning and were joined by workers at the Walmart store in Lancaster, another Dallas suburb. Strikers from the two suburban stores then met workers from the Dallas store who had walked off the job, and they along with community supporters rallied in front of the Dallas store.

The strikers are members of OUR, which started out as a small group of Walmart employees seeking change on the job and has grown to an organization with thousands of members in hundreds of Walmart stores in 43 states.

OUR members are fighting for better pay, more work hours, better scheduling, and decent benefits. Colby Harris, who works in the produce section of the Dallas store,  explained to Josh Eidelson writing for Salon.com what it’s like to work for Walmart. “A lot of associates use somewhat of a buddy system,” Harris said to Eidelson. “We loan each other money during non-paycheck weeks just to make it through to the next week because we don’t have enough money after paying bills to even eat lunch.”

In addition to borrowing money from each other, some Walmart workers have had to rely on government support programs such as Food Stamps to make ends meet.

The work of these low-paid associates helped the retail giant make profits of nearly $16 billion in 2011.

Walmart, however, did not share much of this bounty with its workers. Harris makes only $8.90 an hour. Top executives on the other hand received compensation in 2011 of more than $10 million each.

The Walton family, which owns Walmart, is doing even better. The small, tight-knit group of heirs of Sam Walton, Walmart’s founder, have more wealth than all of the families that comprise the bottom 42 percent of the wealth spectrum in the US.

The most recent strikes add to a series of problems facing Walmart. Workers at its warehouses in Southern California and Elwood Illinois went on strike to protest working conditions at the warehouses.

The Elwood workers recently returned to work after the Walmart contractor that operates the warehouse agreed to pay the workers for the 21 days they were on strike and to stop the retaliation that sparked the strike.

The California strike ended after two weeks when Walmart agreed to hire a third party to monitor conditions at its warehouses.

Workers at two Walmart-contractor operated seafood factories, one in Louisiana and one in Thailand, walked off the job earlier this year to protest slave-like conditions at the two facilities.

The retail giant has also faced opposition from consumers and small- and medium-sized businesses as it tries to expand into urban markets such as Los Angeles, Boston, and New York City.

Walmart’s corporate image took a hit when the New York Times reported that the company had bribed Mexican government officials in its effort to expand its presence in Mexico.

While the strikes by Walmart workers is the most dramatic actions so far in the struggle to improve conditions at Walmart, OUR is promising that they won’t be the last. OUR plans to announce future actions aimed at making change at Walmart at a teleconference on Wednesday, October 10.

More non-union workers prepare to strike

Joining Walmart workers, Walmart contractor workers, and Port of Seattle short-haul drivers, another group of non-union workers is considering an unfair labor practices strike.

Aircraft fuelers who work for Aircraft Service International Group voted overwhelmingly to strike if their employer does not return a suspended fellow fueler to work and address the safety problems that the workers have been raising with management for the last several months.

Alex Popescu, an ASIG fueler at Sea-Tac Airport near Seattle, says that he was suspended after he raised ASIG safety issues at a public hearing held by the Seattle Port Commission, which manages Sea-Tac.

Prior to his testimony, Popescu and fellow workers had raised their concerns about job safety to ASIG management, but management ignored their concerns. Some of the safety concerns include leaking fuel nozzles, soft brakes on fuel trucks carrying thousands of pounds of jet fuel, and taped up gear shifts.

Holding up a picture of a fuel truck that he drives, Popescu pointed out one of the problems to a group of demonstrators who had gathered to show solidarity with the fuelers. “This is a broke gear shift,” Popescu said, pointing to the picture. “ASIG fixed it as you can see with good ol’ duct tape.”

After Popescu was suspended, other fuelers, who don’t belong to a union, voted overwhelmingly to authorize a strike if ASIG does not return Popescu to work with back pay and address the safety issues.

Last week, community supporters organized by Washington Working, a worker center based in Seattle, held  a solidarity demonstration to support the workers.

Supporters included the Faith Action Network, Puget Sound Sage, Our America, and Teamsters Local 117. After the solidarity crowd gathered, they marched to ASIG’s office to speak directly to management, but when they arrived, they found the doors locked and no one would come outside to speak to them.

Before marching to the ASIG office, one of the fuelers spoke to the demonstrators. “This past weekend, ASIG workers met and voted overwhelmingly to authorize a strike if (ASIG does) not immediately return Alex to work with back pay,” said Leon Sams. He went on to say that the company also must stop its harassment and intimidation of workers who speak out and begin to address the safety problems identified by workers.

After the demonstration, the Federal Aviation Administration conducted an investigation of ASIG’s equipment. According to AviationPro.com, the FAA was unable to verify the safety problems reported by workers.

The workers, however said that FAA inspectors failed to talk directly to them. According to a statement from Working Washington, “While the FAA has not spoken to (the workers), workers remain ready, willing, and able to show inspectors the specific equipment they are concerned about in order to ensure that these safety problems are remedied and not swept under the rug.”

ASIG has taken a possible strike by its workers seriously. Management told reporters that if a strike occurs, the company will import employees from its other facilities to fuel planes at the airport.

The workers don’t seem to be intimidated by management’s provocative statement.

“If we strike, we are protected by federal and state law,” Sams said to supporters. “It is illegal for the company to threaten or intimidate workers who are exercising their lawful right to strike for safety and against worker retaliation. Threats made by ASIG representatives to workers in recent days are illegal. And they won’t stop us. We know our rights and are prepared to defend them.”

Illinois Walmart warehouse workers win

Workers at a Walmart warehouse in Elwood, Illinois returned to work after their employer agreed to stop retaliating against workers who filed a wage theft legal action against the company. Their employer, Roadlink Workforce Solutions, also agreed to pay the strikers their wages for the 21 days they were on strike.

“With this victory, we forced the company to respect our rights,” said Ted Ledwa, one of the striking workers. “We showed that when workers are united we can stand up to the biggest corporation in the world and win.”

Roadlink, a temporary staffing company, manages the workforce at Walmart’s Elwood warehouse, the company’s largest distribution center.

One way that Walmart lowers its labor costs is by hiring contractors such as Roadlink to manage its warehouse workers. Roadlink in turn hires temporary workers who have no health care or pension benefits, nor are they eligible for unemployment insurance if they get laid off.

Despite their lack of basic protections, workers at the Elwood warehouse have been trying to make their warehouse a decent place to work with the help of Warehouse Workers for Justice, a workers’ center based in Chicago.

Before the strike, workers had complained to management about unsafe conditions on the job, but management ignored them.

They also complained about the pay system, a piece rate system that determines pay by the amount of cargo that a worker loads or unloads.

If there are too few trailers to load or unload, workers are sent home without pay.

When they work, they sometimes work well more than 40 hours a week, but, according to the strikers, their piece rate sometimes doesn’t amount to the overtime rate required by law. Sometimes the piece rate isn’t enough to meet minimum wage standards.

The lack of minimum wage and overtime pay, led workers to file a wage theft lawsuit against Roadlink.

After the suit was filed, the company raised its level of intimidation and retaliation against workers, especially those who filed the suit. The company’s retaliation led to the workers’ unfair labor practices strike.

When the workers walked off the job, their odds of winning did not look good.

They were united, but their numbers were small, and they were facing off against the world’s biggest employer, Walmart, the power behind Roadlink.

But with the help of Workers for Warehouse Justice, they mounted a solidarity campaign that drew support from across the nation and around the world. More than 100,000 people signed a support letter addressed to Walmart’s corporate management. Supporters also donated money to a strike fund that helped sustain the strikers.

Two weeks into the strike, more than 600 people traveled to Elwood, near Chicago, to demonstrate their solidarity with the workers. Seventeen community supporters, including some clergy and elected officials, staged a solidarity sit-in at the warehouse gates and were arrested for their act of civil disobedience.

Four days after the demonstration and sit-in, the strikers received word that their employer was ready to end the strike, and the workers accepted the offer.

Even though the strikers have returned to work, their fight isn’t over. They plan to join members of OUR Walmart Chicago, an organization of Walmart employees, for a demonstration at a downtown Chicago Walmart.

“While the strike is over, we still have work to do to make the change we want to see including safe conditions, fair pay for all hours work, and an end to discrimination,” read a posting on the Warehouse Workers for Justice Facebook page. “Please join us Wednesday (October 10) in downtown Chicago (Walmart store at 570 W. Monroe) at 10 am.”

Walmart workers strike over unfair labor practices

Instead of reporting for work on October 4, dozens of Walmart workers in Southern California staged a one-day unfair labor practices strike to protest what they described as the retail giant’s retaliation and abuse against Walmart workers trying to improve conditions at the company’s stores.

“Walmart has lashed out at us for speaking up,” said Venanzi Luna, one the strikers in an email message to supporters.

Luna is a member of Organization United for Respect at Walmart (OUR), a worker-led group of Walmart employees who for the last year have waged a collective effort to improve scheduling, benefits, and wages at Walmart.

“Above all, we want Walmart to respect us,” Luna said.

OUR members say that Walmart has responded to their efforts to improve their jobs by cutting work hours, imposing unfair disciplinary action, and intimidating workers.

The strike took place at several Walmart stores in the Los Angeles area. The strikers and their supporters held a boisterous rally at a Walmart in Rico Rivera, California, a suburb of Los Angeles.

Their supporters, according to the New York Times, included Charles Calderon, majority leader of the California State Assembly; the Rev. Eric P. Lee, president of the Los Angeles chapter of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference; and María Elena Durazo, executive secretary-treasurer of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor.

The strike by Walmart associates is the first in North America in the store’s 50-year history.

It comes at the same time that workers at a Walmart warehouse in Elwood, Illinois remain on strike. The warehouse strike, also an unfair labor practice strike over retaliation against worker attempts to improve working conditions, has lasted nearly three weeks.

The warehouse strike is not technically against Walmart but rather the contractor that operates company’s warehouse; nevertheless, the warehouse workers are demanding that Walmart take responsibility for the oppressive actions of their contractor that include wage theft and unsafe working conditions.

The warehouse workers say that Walmart’s policies that cause contractors to continually lower labor cost in order to meet the retail giant’s demands for lower prices are responsible for the wage theft and unsafe conditions at their warehouse.

Another group of Walmart warehouse workers in Southern California recently returned to work after a two-week strike and a 50-mile pilgrimage through Southern California drew attention to conditions in Walmart’s warehouses.

Members of OUR told Josh Eidelson writing for Salon that the warehouse strikes are what led OUR members to call their own strike. “We see what’s happening to (the warehouse workers) as part of the same process of lowering of standards that’s happening to us,” said Pat Tifft, another striker to Eidelson.

The strikers will return to work on Friday. Since the strike is an unfair labor practices strike, the strikers’ jobs are supposed to be protected by law because even non-unionized workers have the right to take collective action against unfair labor practices.

The workers, however, are apprehensive about what awaits them after they return to work and are asking supporters to show their solidarity with them.

“Even though I’m working hard to juggle my job, a tight budget and caring for my sick father, I know that I have to do something to stop Walmart from bullying us when we practice our freedom of speech,” Luna said in her message. “Many of us are taking a huge risk by going on strike. That’s why we need your support.”

Luna said that people could show their support by signing a letter of solidarity with striking Walmart workers.

“Organizing power delivers”; state rejects bid to privatize Kerrville State Hospital

The Texas Department of State Health Services (DSHS) on October 3 rejected a bid by GEO Care to privatize the Kerrville State Hospital, one of ten state facilities that care for people with mental illnesses.

DSHS reported to the Texas Legislative Budget Board that GEO’s proposal to operate the Kerrville hospital received a score of only 64 out of a possible 100. The passing grade was 70.

GEO’s proposal met the requirement mandated by state law that any private contractor taking over operations of a state hospital must save the state at least 10 percent.

However, the only way that GEO could achieve these savings was by reducing staff by 21 percent and cutting employee benefits. DSHS reasoned that reducing staff would put patient care at risk.

Reducing benefits, according to Seth Hutchinson, organizing coordinator of the Texas State Employees Union/CWA Local 6186, also would make it more difficult to provide quality care because doing so would make it harder to retain and attract qualified hospital staff whose compensation is already below market standards for comparable work.

GEO Care, a subsidiary of GEO Group, which among other things operates private incarceration facilities, manages a mental health hospital in Montgomery County, Texas that is county owned but state funded. DSHS has cited the company for flaws in the care that patients receive at this hospital.

Hutchinson said that a coalition that included advocacy groups and the union played an important role in making sure that GEO’s proposal received careful vetting.

“Organized power delivers,” Hutchinson said. “Everyone involved in the decision-making process knew that there was an organized and mobilized constituency intent on making sure that patient care came first and shouldn’t be sacrificed to a low-bid outfit with a questionable track record.”

“Our organizing efforts paid off!” read a blog entry at Grassroots Leadership, the community group that helped organize the coalition that opposed privatization at the Kerrville hospital. “We and our allies sent a sign-on letter urging state leaders to halt privatization efforts.  In September, more than 700 people from across Texas signed our petition to stop private prison corporation GEO Group from taking over the Kerrville State Hospital.”

Hutchinson said that TSEU members made hundreds of phone calls and met with lawmakers who represented districts where state hospitals are located. Several of these lawmakers at the request of union members wrote DSHS officials to express their concerns and opposition to the privatization plan.

“Today’s victory is for all those who care about the mentally ill and who oppose profiting off incarceration and detention,” said the blog entry at Grassroots Leadership.

Hutchinson said that the victory was an important step toward ensuring that care at the state’s hospitals was not compromised, but he warned that the fight isn’t over.

“Rider 63, which began this privatization process by directing the DSHS to contract out a state hospital, still remains in place,” Hutchison said. “The decision made by the agency all but guarantees that this issue will be pushed into the next legislative session, where we’ll have to fight to overturn Rider 63; otherwise, the state will have to reopen bidding on this privatization scheme. TSEU will continue to meet with lawmakers and ask them to commit to overturn rider 63 in the next session.”

Hutchinson urged union members to talk to people with whom they work about this victory and use it to get more state employees to join the union and the union’s political action group COPE. “The strength of our movement depends on more people joining the union and our political action committee,” he said.

17 strike supporters arrested at Walmart warehouse

Police on October 1 arrested 17 people at an Elwood, Illinois Walmart warehouse, the retail giant’s largest distribution center. Those arrested had come to Elwood to support striking warehouse workers. They were joined by about 600 others, including many who came from Chicago in a bus and car caravan.

The striking workers walked off their job at the Elwood warehouse about two weeks ago, a day after a group of the warehouse’s workers had filed a wage theft suit against their employer Roadlink Workforce Solution, a Walmart warehouse contractor.

The workers say they walked off the job because Roadlink management threatened retaliation against those who filed the suit. They also were protesting unsafe conditions at the warehouse.

“Unpaid wages, non payment of overtime, and non payment of the minimum wage,” said Leah Fried of Warehouse Workers for Justice, explaining why the workers went on strike. “There are unsafe conditions that workers have brought to management’s attention, and there’s discrimination.”

Conditions at the warehouse are so bad that turnover is high. One of the striking workers, Mike Compton told the Herald News that he was considered a veteran worker because he had been on the job for three months. “They call us bodies and that’s what we feel like.,” Compton said.

Fried called on Walmart to clean up its warehouses and to take responsibility for its contractor’s violation of basic workers’ rights that are supposed to be protected under the law.

Walmart hired Schneider National to operate its Elwood warehouse. Schneider in turn hired Roadlink, a temporary staffing company to staff the warehous and manage its workers.

Before the strike occurred , some Elwood workers had been fighting to improve their conditions with the help of Warehouse Workers for Justice, a worker center based in Chicago. The wage theft suit that led to the strike was one of their efforts to improve conditions on the job.

When the caravan from Chicago arrived in Elwood, the strikers and their supporters marched to the gates of the warehouse. They carried signs reading, “Walmart Warehouses Steal Our Wages for Low Prices.”

They chanted as they marched and began to mass in front of the warehouse’s closed gates.

Behind the gates were police in full riot gear, members of a unit of the Illinois Law Enforcement Alarm System (ILEAS), a joint venture of the Illinois Association of Chiefs of Police, the Illinois Sheriffs Association, and the Illinois Emergency Management Agency.

ILEAS describes itself as consortium of over 900 local governments established to “meet the needs of local law enforcement throughout the State of Illinois in matters of mutual aid, emergency response, and the combining of resources for public safety and terrorism prevention and response.”

After the strikers and their supporters gathered in front of the warehouse, the gates were opened and to riot police rushed to take up their position between the demonstrators and the warehouse.

Behind the police was what appeared to an armour plated jeep with a machine-gun like crowd control weapon mounted in the rear of the vehicle.

“We are ordering you to immediately disperse,” said a loud voice over a bullhorn to the crowd. “Failure to do so could result in chemical or less lethal emissions being deployed.”

The demonstrators pulled back, but volunteers willing to be arrested to show solidarity with the strikers sat down in front on the road outside of the gates.

As police arrested those who sat down, supporters sang, “We Shall Overcome.”

The  Herald News,  reports that among those arrested were Will County, (Illinois) 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.

One Walmart warehouse strike ends; solidarity rally planned for the other

Workers at a Mira Loma, California warehouse owned by Walmart and operated by NFI, a national transportation and logistics corporation, returned to work on September 28 ending a two-week strike.

The workers called off their strike after winning safety improvements and a commitment from Walmart to hire an independent third party to audit working conditions at the retail giant’s warehouses.

Meanwhile in Elwood, Illinois, workers at a Walmart warehouse operated by Roadlink Workforce Solutions remain on strike.

A support rally is planned for today October 1. Supporters including clergy and community supporters from Chicago have said that they will commit acts of civil disobedience to show their support for the strikers.

Warehouse Workers for Justice, a Chicago worker center supporting the strikers, has also set up a strike fund to help strikers support their families during the strike.

Workers returning to work in California said that the strike and the solidarity actions that took place during the strike helped them feel like Walmart couldn’t ignore them.

“We no longer feel like we are working in the shadows,” said Carlos Martinez, a striking warehouse worker.  “We’ve never had this much attention on our working conditions, and I have never felt this much support. I feel ecstatic going back to work and proud that we have all stood together as a team.”

During the strike Martinez and other strikers participated in a 50-mile, 6-day pilgrimage through Southern California organized by Warehouse Workers United, a Southern California worker center supporting warehouse workers. The pilgrimage was meant to draw attention to working conditions inside Southern California warehouses.

Most warehouse workers are classified as temporary workers, which means that they have no health or retirement benefits, aren’t eligible for unemployment insurance if they get laid off, work for low pay, and are sometimes the victim of wage theft by the their employers.

Moreover, working conditions in these warehouses are unsafe and made worse by constant pressure from Walmart and Walmart contractors to speed up work. One of the ways that Walmart and its contractors speed up work is by setting unreasonable quotas.

“Workers are asked to do the humanly impossible or risk losing their jobs,” said Guadalupe Palma, a director for Warehouse Workers United.

This speed up led Warehouse Workers United to file a complaint against NFI during the strike. The complaint, filed with the California Occupational Safety and Health Administration, documents instances of repetitive lifting at extremely high rates that led to injuries of two workers, one of whom is on strike and the other unable to work because of an injury suffered on the job.

“I am young and I was healthy until the pace inside the warehouse wore me out and used me up,” said Jose Gonzalez, whose medical records pertaining to his back injury are part of the complaint. “Now it is tough for me to walk and stand.”

In Illinois, warehouse workers are facing the same conditions. Like their counterparts in California they are temporary workers working in unsafe conditions, and they face retaliation when they speak up for better working conditions.

Some of the workers filed a lawsuit against Roadlink charging the company with wage theft. Shortly after the suit was filed, management retaliated against the workers, which led to the unfair labor practices strike that began on September 15.

In addition to wage theft and retaliation, Elwood warehouse workers face unsafe working conditions. They lift thousands of boxes, some weighing 250 pounds with no support, and they work in harsh conditions. Temperatures are very hot in the summer and very cold in the winter. And that’s not all.

“The trailers are filled with dust; they’re filled with pesticides,” said one of the strikers as he walked the picket.

Female workers face the extra burden of sexism on the job. “It’s hard for women,” said one female Elwood striker. “There’s not that many women (working in the warehouse), but we’re definitely in there. Sexual harassment, sexual assault are definitely very prevalent.”

The Illinois strikers have been encouraged by the show of support that they’ve. For example, a group of supporters in South Korea gathered signatures on a petition demanding justice for Walmart warehouse workers on strike in the US and presented it to South Korean Walmart management.

On October 1, a caravan of buses and cars will leave Chicago and travel to Elwood where a solidarity demonstrations at the Walmart warehouse will take place.

“The crowd will march to the shipping entrance of the massive warehouse and a group of clergy and community leaders plan to block the road preventing goods from coming in or leaving the warehouse,” reads a Warehouse Workers for Justice press release.  “They are prepared to take arrest in support of the strikers demands.”