Voices From the Supply Chain: An Interview with Warehouse Workers for Justice

September 1st, 2016



BTS speaks with Mark Meinster of Warehouse Workers for Justice on how supply chains affect workers in the global north, as well as on the need for solidarity between workers the world over.



BTS: Hi Mark, thanks for joining us. Can we begin by asking you to tell us what your goals were for this year’s International Labour Conference(ILC)?

MM: Well, from a labour perspective, obviously the key long-term goal is a binding convention on decent work in global supply chains. We knew going in to this year’s ILC that a convention was a long way off and so our central objective was to open enough political space – especially among government representatives keen to see supply chain accountability – to begin that process. And we succeeded with that.

BTS: And with that success, what is your hope for post-ILC worker mobilisation?

MM: Well, I think one of the main things that has to happen is for us to build campaigns that are explicit supply chains campaigns, targeting specific brands, and linking workers in both supplier and buyer countries. For us at WWJ, for example, we represent workers who distribute products mostly manufactured in Asia and we think that a key step will be bringing these workers in the global north together with those in the global south to push towards a convention.

BTS: And can you explain to people less familiar with the issues why a convention would be so important?

MM: Well to step back a second, we’ve got to realise that the first key problem with supply chains is their lack of accountability. All the major firms want to stick with voluntary codes of conduct, they want to see voluntary global standards. And these standards are all well and good – every company should have them. But the reality is that only binding international enforcement can hold lead firms legally accountable for labour violations that occur in their supply chains. So a binding ILO convention is one tool that can help buying countries build legislation that will hold their multinational lead firms accountable.

Read more at opendemocracy.net 


In Historic Ruling, Temps Win Right to Join Unions

July 13th, 2016

By Alex Ding

Working In These Times

A new ruling will enable temporary and permanent employees to come together to negotiate with their bosses in mixed bargaining units.

The National Labor Relations Board on Monday overturned a Bush-era standard that said a union could only organize a bargaining unit of jointly employed and regular employees if both employers consented—even if those employees worked together closely. “Jointly employed” includes temps who are hired through staffing agencies.

The new decision allows jointly employed temps to bargain collectively in the same unit with the solely employed workers they work alongside, ruling that bosses need not consent so long as workers share a “community of interest.”

In a 3-1 decision, the Board overturned a 12-year-old ruling in Oakwood Care Center, where the Board said that a group of temporary workers could not unionize with permanent employees without the approval of their employer and the appropriate staffing agency.

In this new ruling from Miller & Anderson, Inc., the Board returns to a standard set in 2000, during the Clinton administration, in a case called M.B. Sturgis, Inc., which was overruled in Oakwood.

Under Sturgis, and now Miller & Anderson, permanent and jointly employed workers can negotiate in the same unit if they are employed by the same primary employer, and if they share a “community of interest.”

In a statement announcing the ruling, the NLRB said, “requiring employer consent to an otherwise appropriate bargaining unit desired by employees, Oakwood has … allowed employers to shape their ideal bargaining unit, which is precisely the opposite of what Congress intended.”

What the ruling means

The ruling represents a blow to corporations that have moved forcefully, sometimes overwhelmingly, toward using temporary workers in an effort to block worker benefits and collective bargaining.

Pro-corporate entities like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the American Staffing Association (ASA) weighed in on the case last year, calling for the Board to uphold to the Oakwood standard and leave intact the employer consent requisite.

In an amicus statement, the ASA wrote, “Were the board to revert, [it would] … sow uncertainty and conflict.”

For labor and working people, the ruling represents an exciting precedent from the board. The ruling makes it more challenging for employers to avoid labor contracts by using temporary services and removes some obstacles for workers in negotiating effectively with their bosses.

The AFL-CIO, SEIU and the NLRB general counsel supported a return to Sturgis. Warehouse Workers for Justice, a worker center in Chicago, described the decision as “a win for all warehouse workers.”

NLRB counsel Amy Cocuzza, in her brief for Miller & Anderson, affirmed that in matters of collective bargaining, “The employers’ consent, or lack thereof, should not be a consideration.”

Workers at Global Labor Meeting Protest the Removal of Brazil’s Democratically Elected President

July 1st, 2016

By Brian Finnegan, AFL-CIO

Workers from many countries this week made clear they reject the process in Brazil to remove democratically elected president Dilma Rousseff. Workers from around the world unite every June at the annual International Labor Conference in Geneva, Switzerland, to debate with governments and employers and defend workers’ rights. While this year’s meetings have focused on improving wages and conditions in global supply chains, worker delegations took the opportunity to make their opinions known when the interim government of Brazil’s minister of labor began to address the plenary on Wednesday.

Wearing shirts saying, “We are Brazil. We are against the coup,” worker delegates rose to their feet, holding signs that read, “This minister is illegitimate” and “Solidarity with Brazilian workers and democracy.” Many shouted, “Minister of the coup.”

Those leading the impeachment are themselves charged with corruption and stealing millions of dollars, while Rousseff is not. They have demonstrated their corruption repeatedly since assuming power. After taking office, the interim president named an all-white, all-male cabinet in a country where the majority is of African descent. Since then, revelations of corruption have surfaced regarding seven of the new ministers. Two already have been forced to resign. The minister of planning stepped down less than a week after taking office, when evidence emerged that he and other politicians had organized Rousseff’s impeachment to protect allies in Congress from corruption investigations.

Joao Felicio, former president of Brazil’s largest labor federation, CUT, and current president of the International Trade Union Confederation (of which the AFL-CIO is a part), thanked the AFL-CIO and its allies for joining the action. “There are acts of solidarity that you remember forever,” Felicio said. “Today was one.”

The AFL-CIO has made public its opposition to Rousseff’s removal and was joined in the protest by the United Steelworkers, the New Trade Union Initiative (India), Jobs with Justice and Warehouse Workers for Justice (U.S.), Asia Floor Wage (Indonesia) and the National Guestworker Alliance (U.S. and Mexico).

Labor Research and Action Network Aims To Connect Researchers and Scholars with the Labor Movement

July 1st, 2016

Jeff Schuhrke

Working In These Times


When 100,000 protesters occupied the Wisconsin State Capitol in early 2011 in an attempt to thwart Governor Scott Walker’s bill revoking the rights of public sector employees, a group of labor researchers and scholars were motivated to coordinate their efforts to better serve the interests of the working class.

“We knew we needed academics with credibility saying that what was happening with Wisconsin’s attack on unions was not right,” says Erin Johansson, who at the time was a researcher for the Washington, D.C.-based advocacy group American Rights at Work.

Read more at Working In These Times

Your Amazon shopping habit is transforming warehouses

April 26th, 2016

By Amina Elahi

Chicago Tribune

Customer demand for two-day shipping is forcing retailers and warehouse managers to evolve, according to a study released Tuesday by Lincolnshire-based Zebra Technologies.

The Zebra 2020 Warehouse Vision Study looks at how warehouses could change in the coming years. It showed a trend away from massive distribution centers toward more, smaller warehouses closer to the end consumer, according to the 2015 survey of nearly 1,400 people who run warehouses around the world.

“When you order that T-shirt, you absolutely expect you’re going to click ‘receive in two days’ and it’s going to be in your house in two days and it’s exactly the product you ordered,” said Zebra’s Dan Chamberlain, who oversees marketing for the company’s transportation and logistics division.

About 40 percent of those surveyed said the demand for shorter delivery times was a driving factor in warehouse changes.

One way to do that is to put fewer items in smaller warehouses that might be easier for workers to navigate, he said. His company manufactures devices that warehouse workers use to manage tasks and scan goods.

Call it the Amazon effect. The retailing and shipping behemoth has trained customers to expect cheap, reliable and accurate delivery of goods ordered online — and faster than ever.

“Certainly, our friends at Amazon have had a significant impact on how supply chains are managed,” Chamberlain said.

That may be why 76 percent of those surveyed by Zebra indicated plans to open more warehouses in the near future, up from 48 percent in 2013, when Zebra last conducted this survey. On the other hand, about 61 percent planned to increase the footprints of their existing warehouses, down from 64 percent in 2013.

In the past, many warehouses kept track of goods by the pallet, but the rise of online shopping and subsequent need to ship individual items has changed that, Chamberlain said. Now, workers must be able to quickly and accurately identify the specific T-shirt a customer ordered, in the correct size. That requires detailed inventory management that starts when goods arrive at the warehouse and continues until they’re shipped out.

Smaller warehouses could make that easier, Chamberlain said. Accuracy in shipments could also improve, since there would be fewer items to sift through per warehouse.

But while the sheer number of items might be lower, the variety of goods could increase. About 52 percent of those surveyed in 2015 said they would carry more unique items in 2020 than they do now, down from 54 percent in 2013.

That could lead to even more grueling conditions for warehouse workers, particularly the pickers who collect items from the warehouse floor to be shipped out, said Mark Meinster, executive director of Joliet-based worker center Warehouse Workers for Justice.

As order sizes get smaller, there’s less opportunity for workers to use machines such as forklifts to move large quantities of goods, he said. Instead, pickers have to spend more time on their feet — even if they are covering less ground.

“Working conditions have gotten dramatically worse over the last 10 years … and the e-commerce sector has not done anything to change that,” Meinster said.

If warehouses successfully enable more businesses of all sizes to offer two-day shipping within the next few years, they will likely incur costs along the way. But they’ll also sell more products and, theoretically, drive more revenue, Zebra’s Chamberlain said.

The primary concern at the moment is making widespread quick shipping possible, he said. The next question is how costs will be passed on to the customer.

Chamberlain said he did not know whether other retailers would follow Amazon as it pushes toward faster, even same-day, delivery. But it’s possible.

“I don’t think anyone sees consumer demands abating,” he said. “I don’t think you’re going to see a future where … you’re going to say, ‘Eh, I used to be able to get it in two days, but now four days is fine.'”