Port truck drivers and warehouse workers make progress in their fight for justice

After hearing testimony from port truck drivers and warehouse workers, the Los Angeles City Council Trade, Travel and Tourism Committee unanimously voted to recommend passage of a city ordinance aimed at ending labor abuses of port truck drivers and warehouse workers at the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach.

Port truck drivers, who ferry goods between the ports and nearby warehouses, and warehouse workers are important links in the global supply chain that delivers $450 billion worth of consumer goods from the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach to retail stores, but they work under appalling conditions.

Council member Mike Bonin, a committee member who listened workers’ testimonies before the vote, described their working conditions as “modern day sharecropping.”

Duane Wilson, a warehouse worker who testified before the committee, said that racial discrimination, low wages, and his status as a temporary worker, who never knows from one day to the next whether he will work, make it impossible for him to earn a living wage.

With the help of the Teamsters union, drivers and warehouse workers are building a political campaign at the local, state, and federal level to end labor abuses at the ports.

Their political campaign complements their actions on the job that include strikes and an ongoing organizing campaign to make their jobs good-paying union jobs.

The campaign won a victory when the Trade, Travel, and Tourism Committee voted to recommend that the city council consider denying companies that violate city, state, or federal labor laws access to city property.

Currently, port trucking companies and warehouse owners operate on city-owned land at or near the ports.

At the federal level, Rep. Grace Napolitano has filed the Port Drivers Bill of Rights bill in the US House of Representatives.

On November 30, Sen. Bernie Sanders met with port truck drivers. After the meeting, Sanders said that he would support the Port Drivers Bill of Rights because “the federal government should not be rewarding trucking companies that exploit and abuse their workers.”

One way that these trucking companies exploit and abuse their workers is by misclassifying them as independent contractors instead of employees.

In doing so, companies don’t pay for social security, unemployment, or workers compensation benefits. They also don’t pay overtime when drivers work more than 40 hours a week, which they frequently do.

Also by misclassifying their drivers as independent contractors, trucking companies can find more ways to exploit drivers such as leasing trucks to drivers.

The lease agreement that workers are forced to sign in order to work requires them to pay as much as $60 a day to rent a truck and requires them to pay for insurance, fuel, and some maintenance costs.

These expenses can leave drivers in debt to trucking companies.

Judy Gearhart and Sarah Newell of the International Labor Rights Forum write that these “unethical leasing agreements” amount to “debt bondage” that result in some drivers being paid as little as $3 an hour, well below the federal minimum wage.

When drivers speak up about their working conditions, they often face reprisals.

Rene Flores, a port truck driver, told committee members at the hearing that he was fired for talking to a reporter about conditions on the job.

Despite the risks, port truck drivers and warehouse workers have been fighting back.

Since 2014 when the workers first began organizing, there have been 15 strikes by port truck drivers. They also have filed more than 1000 legal actions charging their bosses with wage theft and misclassifying them as independent contractors.

According to USA Today, which published an extensive expose about working conditions at the ports, judges have ruled in favor of the workers in 97 percent of these cases.

Most recently, an administrative law judge with the National Labor Relations Board ruled in favor of workers when he agreed that International Bridge Transport, which ships goods to warehouses owned by Amazon, Target, and others, had misclassified its truck drivers.

The judge ordered the company to stop misclassifying its drivers and stop intimidating and harassing drivers trying to form a union.

“Intermodal Bridge Transport has made it increasingly difficult for me to make a living by illegally and immorally classifying me as an independent contractor instead of an employee,” said Daniel Aneseko Uaina, an International Bridge Transport driver after learning about the judge’s ruling. “With this ruling, justice has been served and the company can no longer deny me my employee rights.”

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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.”

Report criticizes Walmart for undermining good jobs in its supply chain

A new report released by the National Employment Law Project describes how Walmart’s race-to-the-bottom corporate culture is driving down wages and working conditions for workers in the retail giant’s supply chain.

These mostly Latino workers, many of whom are immigrants, work in warehouses loading and unloading merchandise destined for the shelves at Walmart stores. They are by and large precarious workers employed by temporary staffing agencies, which in turn are subcontractors for the Walmart contractors that operate the warehouses.

The contractors are under constant pressure from Walmart, whose management oversees the warehouses, to reduce costs. According to the report, Chain of Greed, Walmart’s cost cutting pressure leads these contractors and subcontractors to cut corners on safety and violate wage and hour laws.

“In service of low prices and large profits, Walmart has become infamous for squeezing its suppliers and contractors, so that contracted workers at the bottom of the food chain are forced to accept poverty wages and harsh working conditions,” said Christine Owens, NELP executive director.

Owens also said that Walmart is only one among many companies that rely on a contingent and precarious workforce. “Subcontracting is on the rise across the US economy, and without fair ground rules that are respected by all players and rigorously enforced, the quality of many more jobs in America will spiral downward.”

One of Walmart’s practices that drive down wages and working conditions is its “Plus One” bargaining strategy, which requires contractors always to reduce their costs from the previous year.

The report describes how this bargaining strategy affects workers at a Walmart distribution center in Mira Loma, California, owned and operated by Schneider Logistics, a leading transportation and logistics corporation based in Wisconsin.

Schneider contracts with two temporary employment agencies, Rogers Premier and Impact Logistics, to staff the warehouse. In order to meet Walmart’s demands to lower costs, Schneider and its subcontractors in 2010 implemented a piece rate pay system. Instead of making an hourly wage, worker pay is now based on the number of shipping containers they load or unload.

The result, according to the report, was “rampant minimum wage and overtime violations.” Workers also accused their employers of falsifying time records and creating an overly complicated piece rate system that makes it difficult to know if they are being paid for all the work they performed.

The California Labor Commissioner investigated the workers’ complaints and fined the two subcontractors more than $1 million for wage and hour violations.

Workers also said that the piece rate system led to a speed up on the job creating more safety hazards in the warehouse, which like all warehouses can be a dangerous place to work even without speed up.

Walmart tried to absolve itself of responsibility for its subcontractors’ violations, but the report says that the company exercises continuous oversight of the warehouse. Its security guards are employed by Walmart; furthermore, Walmart management is on site and frequently instructs subcontractors on staffing levels, productivity, and worker misconduct.

Conditions at the Mira Loma facility are not unique. Other reports show that similar conditions exist at Walmart warehouses in Illinois and New Jersey.

Warehouse operators are just one of a growing number of businesses that rely heavily on easily exploited precarious workers. Chain of Greed  estimates that 30 percent of the US workforce is engaged in some kind of contingent or non-standard relationship and that as many as 50 percent of today’s new jobs fit this category.

These jobs generally pay low wages, have few if any benefits, and by their very nature make it difficult if not impossible for workers to have a collective voice on the job.

Latino workers are over represented in the precarious workforce. The report estimates that 21 percent of precarious workers in the US are Latino.

According to Owens, precarious work has turned what were once decent jobs like those in warehouses into low-wage, dead-end jobs, and the only way to stop this decline is to hold corporations like Walmart accountable for the misdeeds of their contractors.

“When these kinds of deplorable wage violations and harsh working conditions are forced from up top, it shouldn’t just be the contractor and subcontractor left holding the bag,” Owens said. “We need to hold major corporations accountable for the workplace abuses that stem from their outsourcing policies.”