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By Kari Lydersen
Working In These Times
CHICAGO—Marketers for Bissell, the vacuum and cleaning products company, came to the International Home and Housewares Show at Chicago’s convention center last weekend to sell their latest products to Wal-Mart, Target, Kohl’s and other major retailers.
But while displaying their wares, company representatives got a clear message from workers fired last fall after filing discrimination and unfair labor practice charges. Fired workers were joined by about 100 supporters rallied by the UE union, which is advocating for the Bissell workers as part of its larger Warehouse Workers for Justice campaign.
As I previously covered on this blog, about 70 workers were fired in November from Bissell’s warehouse in suburban Will County—part of a massive distribution hub where 150,000 workers process retail goods coming from overseas for transport throughout the nation. Female Bissell workers were often paid $2.50 per hour less than men for the same jobs – which they say is especially ironic since women purchase the bulk of homecare products.
“It’s total discrimination,” said Cindy Marble. “I was fired simply in retaliation for standing up for myself.”
Through the UE and local clergy, the workers are demanding restitution and ideally rehiring with fair pay and improved working conditions. Most of the workers have been so far unable to find other jobs.
“Bissell, clean up your act!” chanted the crowd, led by Rev. Craig Purchase of Mt. Zion Tabernacle, on the sidewalk outside the convention center. Upon learning that Bissell representatives were watching from inside, the group spread out across the length of the lawn and pumped their fists or shook their fingers directly at the glass façade.
“These vacuum cleaners are made in sweatshops in China, and guess who has to move them, in sweatshop conditions right in Obama’s back yard,” said campaign organizer Abraham Mwaura. “These multinational companies moved overseas and what did they give us back? These minimum wage jobs.”
UE organizer Mark Meinster said a Bissell representative indicated Sunday that company officials want to talk with the workers. Meinster thinks the public pressure at the convention center made a significant impact, given that major customers like Wal-Mart and Kohl’s – also targets of the Warehouse Workers campaign – were among the 20,000-plus buyers at the show. Workers have also been leafleting at stores calling on customers to boycott Bissell products until the charges are addressed.
Past letters and calls from the union and clergy have elicited only a letter from Bissell saying the firings were carried out by a subcontractor, whose contract has ended. Most warehouse workers are hired through subcontractors – sometimes several layers of them – a common strategy in many industries wherein large companies avoid accountability for working conditions.
“Certainly we’re communicating that we’re open to straightening the situation out,” Meinster said. “It’s their warehouse. We think this is a powerful example of what warehouse workers are facing everyday across the industry. People were hearing for years that this would be so great for jobs in the area. This crystallizes the reasons it’s not.”
Group of 100 organizes a boycott to peacefully protest a company they say mistreated and fired local workers
January 19, 2010
By CINDY WOJDYLA CAIN
JOLIET — On a day set aside to honor civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr., a group of warehouse workers, community leaders and local clergy gathered at Sacred Heart Church to launch a peaceful protest of their own: a boycott of Bissell products.
The boycott stems from the termination of 70 employees who joined a union last year and complained about working conditions at the Bissell Homecare Inc. warehouse in Elwood.
Former warehouse employees allege they were paid below minimum wage, women were paid less than men, a pregnant worker was assigned heavy lifting and employees who complained were threatened with retaliation.
“How can we celebrate the legacy of Dr. King without addressing the injustice that exists in our backyard,” asked the Rev. Craig Purchase, of Mount Zion Tabernacle Church, who is president of Rainbow PUSH Coalition’s Joliet chapter.
Betty Washington, first vice president for the Joliet chapter of the NAACP, said she thinks King would have been pleased with Monday’s event, which drew about 100 people to the church at 337 S. Ottawa St.
“I believe Will County has become a place where warehouses come and use our citizens without paying them a living wage, and it adds to the poverty level here in Will County,” she said. “Yes they’re bringing jobs into the community, but for the most part people work 90 days and then they’re let go.”
Stacy Moskowitz, a Bissell spokeswoman, said the workers lost their jobs when Roadlink Workforce Solutions, a temp agency, decided to end its staffing contract with Maersk Distribution Services, the company hired by Bissell to manage the facility.
The termination of that pact, not worker complaints, appears to be “the root of the dispute,” she said.
“We have no information that Maersk has done anything wrong in the way that it has operated the facility,” Moskowitz said in a press release.
Both Maersk and Roadlink also have issued statements in the past denying any worker mistreatment at the warehouse that opened a year ago at Route 53 and Ira Morgan Road.
The Rev. Herbert Brooks Jr., who serves on the Will County Board, said he was happy with the “fantastic” turnout at Monday’s event.
“The 100 people told us, ‘We’re not going to take it anymore.’ And that’s what I loved best about it,” he said.
The Rev. Raymond Lescher, pastor at Sacred Heart, said the hearing was just the first step.
“We have to keep the pressure on and we have to stay focused.”
Leaders from Chicago-based Warehouse Workers for Justice, who helped organize the Joliet event, say they hope the boycott spreads from church to church and town to town. They distributed a list of Bissell products — including vacuum cleaners, mops, brooms, brushes, cleaning formulas and sweepers — that they urged the group to boycott.
Michael Meinster, a Warehouse Workers for Justice board member, said Bissell — not Maersk — is the target of the boycott because the company has the ultimate power to fix conditions at the warehouse and rehire the workers.
“They hold the strings,” he said. “Maersk works for them.”
Scott Marshall, a mass communications professor at University of St. Francis, said he plans to go into area stores to tell managers that he is boycotting Bissell products to drive the point home.
“It’s un-American to treat workers that way,” he said of the alleged abuses.
Orland Rivera, of Wilmington, said his salary at the Bissell warehouse was cut from $12 to $10.50 with no warning. Rivera, 50, said he was laid off three times from warehouse jobs in 2008 and three more times in 2009. He remains unemployed after being fired from the Bissell job with 69 co-workers Nov. 6. He’s looked for other warehouse jobs, but they’re all staffed by temp agencies, he said.
After the Bissell workers were terminated, Warehouse Workers for Justice filed complaints against Maersk and Roadlink with the Illinois and U.S. labor departments and the National Labor Relations Board. In December, the group filed a class action lawsuit against the temp agency that staffs the Walmart warehouse in Joliet for allegedly not paying employees for all the hours they worked and for overtime. All of the cases are pending.
Celebrating the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. at Joliet’s Mt. Zion Baptist Church
January 18, 2010
By JOE HOSEY, The Joliet Herald-News
JOLIET–Martin Luther King Jr. was killed when he went to Memphis, to support striking sanitation workers. At the ecumenical celebration of King’s birth on Sunday, pastors and activists called attention to a present day labor struggle.
“We can’t really celebrate the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King if there are injustices occurring less than five miles away from us,” said Abraham Mwaura, a representative of Warehouse Workers for Justice.
Mwaura spoke during the celebration held at Mt. Zion Baptist Church and told of the conditions warehouse workers are subjected, including those right here in Joliet.
Mwaura imparted the story of a pregnant worker whose job in a frozen pizza warehouse had her bending over a conveyor belt for the duration of her shift. Her doctor told her she had to make an adjustment for the sake of her unborn baby, Mwaura said, but management “refused to move her, refused to give her a stool, refused to do anything to make her work lighter.”
Management stood fast even in the face of an organized protest by the workers, he said, and the woman ultimately lost her baby.
“What is that frozen pizza worth to us now?” Mwaura asked. “What is that economic development worth to us now?”
He also introduced a former warehouse worker identified only as Cindy, who was fired from the Bissell facility in Elwood after she and 69 of her co-workers protested such practices as mistreating the pregnant and paying below the minimum wage.
The Warehouse Workers for Justice are meeting at Sacred Heart Church on Ottawa Street today and will call for a boycott of Bissell products, Mwaura said.
The Rev. Isaac Singleton also addressed the crowd in Mt. Zion Baptist Church and spoke of the progress made by the black community, and of the struggle ahead.
“I remember when we couldn’t go downtown and buy nothing,” Singleton said. He also recalled “sitting on the back of the bus in Joliet.”
“I think about how far God brought us,” Singleton said, later adding,” We are really not that much better off than we were years ago.
“We’re not where we ought to be, and we’re not where we should be,” the reverend said. “But you have come along way.”
Most importantly, Singleton said, men and women of all races need to “stick together as people.”
“As people of the United States of America,” he said, “and more specifically, Joliet, Illinois, because we can make a difference.”
IWW activists in Grand Rapids, MI let Kohl’s customers know that Bissell products are distributed with sweatshop labor. Grand Rapids is home to the headquarters of Bissell Homecare.