Archive for December 2009
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Between China and big box stores, minimum wage ‘temp’ workers take a stand.
By ROGER BYBEE
Chicago has long been an important center for both manufacturing and shipping goods. But now that the City of Big Shoulders has been stripped of much of its industrial base, state and local officials—along with corporate developers—hope to capitalize on its evermore important role as a transportation hub in the global supply chain.
Chicago is a critical juncture for distribution of goods throughout the nation, and by locating just outside the city, the “goods movement industry” can shave two days off of distribution time by avoiding the congestion that plagues the city’s railways according to Mark Meinster, international representative for the United Electrical Workers of America (UE).
More than ever, corporations need a complex distribution network to get the goods they produce in Mexico and China to market. Stepping into this role have been intermodal transportation complexes like the gigantic Centerpoint hub built in 2002 in Elwood, Ill., 75 minutes south of Chicago. Meinster said that the warehouses employ about 1,500 to 2,000 workers at warehouses owned by dozens of major firms, and helps make Chicago the third largest container port after Hong Kong and Singapore, and the largest intermodal facility in the U.S.
The company has received $160 million in state and local subsidies from public officials desperate to find a substitute for the loss of high-paying manufacturing jobs. And Centerpoint claims that, when at full capacity, the hub in Elwood will have cost $1 billion total and will provide 8,000 jobs in the area.
However, the public subsidies have failed to produce a harvest of quality jobs at Centerpoint, as well as three other Chicago-area hubs already built or under construction. Most of the warehouse work is done by temporary workers paid minimum-wage, which is currently $8 per hour in Illinois.
The lack of public awareness about the warehouse workers’ plight began to change when 70 workers were fired at a warehouse owned by Michigan-based Bissell Corp.—best known for its vacuum cleaners, now all produced overseas—and managed by Danish logistics firm Maersk. The Maersk/Bissell workers’ mistake: seeking help from the UE, the union behind the Republic Windows and Doors sit-down strike one year ago.
Last September, Miguel Deniz, a laborer at a southwest suburban warehouse, wandered into a Joliet church looking for help.
Worker-rights organizers were holding an information session, and Deniz, who was with about 20 other employees, was pretty sure something was wrong. He was working an awful lot of hours that his paycheck didn’t seem to reflect.
On Thursday Deniz and seven other workers filed a class-action lawsuit alleging that SelectRemedy, the temp agency contracted to staff the warehouse that handles shipping for Wal-Mart, has been shorting wages over the past several years.
The lawsuit, filed in Cook County Circuit Court, also alleged that the company didn’t pay time-and-a-half for overtime work.
Only SelectRemedy was sued, not Wal-Mart. The accusers worked at the warehouse in Elwood as well as for Pampered Chef and other companies that contracted with SelectRemedy, according to the lawsuit.
But workers’ advocates said the majority of the alleged violations center on the warehouse. On Thursday, the employees stood in frigid weather outside the company’s West Side store to talk about the lost wages.
“I worked 57 hours and I only got paid for 35,” said Deniz, 62, holding a handful of pay stubs. “I think it’s unjust that we’re not getting paid complete hours and for overtime. We’re being defrauded.”
Another company, Schneider Logistics, operates part of the Elwood warehouse and contracts with SelectRemedy, said Mark Meinster, a board member of the Illinois-based Warehouse Workers for Justice.
Michelle Bradford, a spokeswoman for Wal-Mart, said the retailer tries to comply “with all labor laws and regulations.”
“And we rely on our third-party vendors to do the same,” she said.
SelectRemedy did not return calls seeking comment on the lawsuit. Schneider had no immediate comment.
In a written statement, Pampered Chef said it was unaware of the temp workers’ concerns, but it met its contractual obligations “to pay its workers regular and overtime rates for all hours worked.”
The workers at the warehouse near Joliet unload containers with goods including flat-screen TVs, cell phones, and PlayStations. The items are sent to stores across the Midwest.
As Christmas season rolls in and the packaging and shipping increases, the complaints have increased, Meinster said.
“They’ll do whatever it takes to drive labor costs down,” said Chris Williams, an attorney representing the workers. “They’re only working to make profits.”
–Daarel Burnette II and Annie Sweeney
By CINDY WOJDYLA CAIN
JOLIET — A class-action lawsuit was filed Thursday against Select Remedy, the temp agency that staffs the Walmart warehouse in Elwood.
On Thursday, representatives from Working Hands Legal Clinic, Chicago Workers Collaborative and Warehouse Workers for Justice held a press conference in Chicago to announce the filing in Cook County Circuit Court.
According to the lawsuit, warehouse employees are being financially mistreated because they are not paid for all of the hours they work, and they are not paid for overtime.
Select Remedy, a California-based company, could not be reached for comment.
Walmart spokeswoman Michelle Bradford said Walmart hired another company to manage its warehouse. That company hired the temp agency.
“We work to comply with all labor laws and regulations,” she said. “And we rely on our third-party vendors to do the same.”
Mark Meinster, a board member for Warehouse Workers for Justice, said the lawsuit and action taken last month against Road Link, a temp agency that staffed the Bissell Homecare warehouse in Elwood, are only the beginning.
In the Bissell case, complaints on behalf of workers were filed with the U.S. Department of Labor, the National Labor Relations Board and the Illinois Department of Labor. The companies involved claimed no wrongdoing.
Eye on the industry
The two cases are just the tip of the iceberg in Will County, Meinster said Thursday morning as he waited for warehouse workers in front of the Walmart on Jefferson Street in Joliet. The group gathered at the Joliet site and then drove into Chicago for the press conference.
“We feel that the logistics industry in Will County needs to look at this problem and take responsibility for what’s happening in this supply chain,” Meinster said. “These could be very good, blue-collar jobs. There’s no reason these jobs shouldn’t be paying a living wage and shouldn’t be providing decent benefits for people.”
Will County has the highest concentration of temp agencies in Illinois on a per capita basis, said Meinster, who is the international representative for the United Electrical Workers union. Some distribution companies hire temp agencies to avoid paying benefits including health insurance, and vacation and holiday pay, he said.
“Although you don’t see these kinds of violations everywhere, they are prevalent in multiple warehouses,” he said. “Given that 70 percent of the industry are temporary workers, that we’re going to find more violations like this.”
In the Select Remedy case, some workers weren’t being paid for hours they worked; others were being paid split paychecks for work in different departments to avoid overtime pay, Meinster said.
“Under the law if you work for one employer more than 40 hours a week, they have to pay you time and a half,” he said.
Miguel Deniz, 62, of Joliet worked in the Walmart warehouse for a year. As he waited with Meinster for the trip to Chicago, he talked about his experience as a container loader/unloader. Deniz spoke in Spanish. Interpreter Leticia Marquez, a United Electrical Workers union organizer, translated his comments.
Deniz said he worked for Select Remedy for 57 hours and was only paid for 35 hours.
“I think it is an injustice and an abuse that they are committing against us,” he said. “We don’t always get paid the correct amount. We are always paid differently to cut corners.”
Another warehouse worker was quoted in a press release.
“Walmart is the richest company in the world, but the people who distribute their products are treated like slaves,” said Ruben Bautista, a plaintiff in the suit.
The lawsuit was filed under the Illinois Day Labor and Temporary Services Act.
The Big Blue from Bentonville relies on its supply chain for its enormous profitability. The company constructs enormous regional distribution centers and automate their inventory system (in part using RFID technology) to load trucks with exactly the products that a store is selling, and their trucks are dispatched at regular times on regular routes, replenishing supplies steadily and precisely, allowing the individual stores to eliminate storage space in favor of floor space. It’s an impressive system, designed by Chief Information Officer Linda Dillman, the unheralded genius behind the company’s ridiculous profits.
The other, more important element behind the Bentonville Monster’s profitability is their ability to maintain a razor thin margin across a huge breadth of volume. The profit per unit sold is small–but the amount sold is enormous. Obviously, having an innovative supply chain is a critical part of this. The other part is pulling out all stops to keep labor costs down.
By Curtis Black
Workers at a huge Walmart warehouse south of Joliet are charging their subcontractor with wage theft.
Joined by supporters and attorneys, they’ll announce the filing of a class-action lawsuit against warehouse contractors at an event outside Chicago’s Walmart, 4650 W. North, tomorrow (Thursday, December 10) at 11:30 a.m.
The lawsuit, filed by the Working Hands Legal Clinic under the Day Laborer Services Act, targets Select Remedy, the staffing agency at the warehouse, and Schneider Logistics, which manages the facility, located in Elwood, Illinois.
The class action would cover about 300 workers at the Walmart warehouse and thousands of additional Select Remedies employees in the Chicago area, an organizer said.
The lawsuit charges that Select Remedies split workers paychecks in order to evade overtime laws and that warehouse workers have not been paid in full for hours worked.
Workers say Walmart, which owns the warehouse and whose products are shipped there, is ultimately reponsible.
“We hold Wal-Mart responsible for what has happened to us,” said Ruben Bautista, a plaintiff in the suit. “They control what happens in their warehouse.”
Said Bautista: “Wal-Mart is the richest company in the world, but the people who distribute their products are treated like slaves.”
The Walmart warehouse workers are supported by Warehouse Workers for Justice, a new workers center founded by United Electrical Workers and the Chicago Workers Collaborative. Workers centers mobilize community support to win protection from exploitation for vulnerable workforces, including immigrants and temporary workers (see Newstips 7-13-05).
“We’ve been getting calls for years from warehouse workers, especially in the southwest suburban area,” said Mark Meinster of UE. The warehouse workers center began conducting workers rights workshops in churches around Joliet last summer, and that’s where Walmart warehouse workers approached them, he said.
With train lines converging here as well as the third largest container port in the world, Chicago is a major center of the increasingly global distribution and supply chain. And with hundreds of new distribution centers opening along I-55 (with an estimated half billion square feet of warehouse space), Chicago has one of the biggest concentrations of warehouse workers in the world, Meinster said.
“The problem is, 70 percent of the workers are temps,” he said. They work for the minimum wage or little more, they have no health care, no sick pay or holidays, very little job security — and often little recourse to abuses on the job.
Often arrangements with contrators and subcontractors provide legal insulation for companies operating warehouses – though Meinster points out that the Day Labor Services Act allows workers to sue client companies.