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.