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.

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Walmart supply chain workers unite, demand justice

Workers from Walmart’s supply chain on August 9 rallied together in Los Angeles and presented a formal ethics complaint about their working conditions to Walmart executives.

There’s a pattern among Walmart contractors that supply the retail giant with the low-cost items that stock the company’s discount stores, said Guadalupe Palma, campaign director for Warehouse Workers United in a statement about the action. “No matter the country, no matter the workplace, no matter the worker, we see that Walmart and its contractors deny responsibility, ignore serious problems, and fire workers who stand up for change.”

Among those on hand to present the ethics complaint was Ana Diaz, one of eight workers at CJ’s Seafood in Louisiana who went on strike to protest abuses at the seafood processing plant where they work.

On June 4, Diaz and seven of her cohorts walked off the job because their employer made them work 24-hour days, didn’t pay them overtime, locked them in the plant during work hours, kept them under constant surveillance, and threatened those who complained with violence.

With the help of the National Guestworkers Alliance, the strikers,  guest workers from Mexico, filed wage complaints with the US Department of Labor, health and safety complaints with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, and discrimination complaints with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

They also took their complaints to Walmart, which is supposed to monitor its contractors to ensure that their workers are treated fairly.

An initial investigation conducted by Walmart  found no evidence of wrong doing by its contractor. “Following our investigation, as well as investigations by the Department of Labor and OSHA, at this time we are unable to substantiate claims of forced labor or human trafficking at CJ Seafood,” said Walmart spokeswoman Megan Murphy in an email to the Daily Beast.

The Workers Rights Consortium conducted its own investigation and on June 26 issued a report of its findings. Working conditions at CJ’s Seafood “(rivals) any sweatshops in China or Bangladesh,” said Scott Nova, WRC executive director in announcing the results of the investigation.

Walmart on June 30 backtracked on its original assessment and announced that it was suspending purchases from CJ’s Seafood because its investigation found violations at the company’s plant.

In July, the Department of Labor announced that it would seek nearly $214,000 in unpaid wages and penalties from CJ’s Seafood and OSHA fined the company $34,000 for health and safety violations.

Conditions at CJ’s Seafood are not an exception for Walmart contractors. The National Guestworkers Alliance conducted a survey of Walmart contractors that hire guestworkers and found that 12 of the 18 contractors in the audit sample had been cited for 622 violations of federal health, safety, or wage and hour laws. In addition, about a dozen discrimination suits had been filed against the contractors.

Earlier in the year workers at seafood and pineapple processing plants in Thailand owned by Walmart contractors walked off the job to protest debt slavery and other oppressive conditions at the factories where they worked.

Warehouse workers in Southern California have successfully forced Walmart contractors to pay them wages that were illegally withheld.

It’s these oppressive conditions and others like them throughout the world that brought together guestworkers from Louisiana, warehouse workers from Southern California, food processing workers from Thailand, and Walmart employees at the site of a proposed new Walmart store in Los Angeles’ Chinatown to demand that Walmart take responsibility for the worker abuse that takes place throughout the retail giant’s supply chain.

Speakers at the Los Angeles rally said that it would take a united effort to get justice from Walmart. “Globalization for the working poor of the world means that American warehouse workers today have more in common with factory workers in Thailand’s shrimp and pineapple factories than with the one-percenters in their own country who profit from their labor,” said Chancee Martorell, executive director of the Thai Community Development Center, representing the Thai workers.

“Hyper-exploitation is the global labor standard Walmart has chosen to pursue,” he added.  “This just means the fight for justice for Walmart’s workers is that much bigger. Thailand may seem far away to the Walton heirs, but we are going to bring the plight of Thai workers to the suburbs of Arkansas. You bring home the profits, you bring home the struggle too.”