Shock to the System

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Posted June 11, 2009 in Feature Story

Traffic was bumper to bumper in all directions at Etiwanda Avenue and Mission Boulevard and the intersection had only been blocked for a few minutes. The operation was going smoothly. The caravan of protesters left Fontana and was trailed by a police car through each jurisdiction it passed. Some of the warehouses along the way took precautions, hired security and blocked the entrance to their properties with traffic cones. This workers’ rights group had recently organized a similar protest that blocked the main access in and out of a Wal-Mart distribution center near Fontana for two hours. The act of civil disobedience was still fresh in the mind of management and local law enforcement. 

 

The newest, most militant labor movement in the nation is happening right now in the IE.

 

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Right before the May 28 protest in Mira Loma kicked off, organizers with Warehouse Workers United went over their plans: Teams went straight to their assigned street corners and waited for everyone to get in place. Then action marshals, who wore bright-orange safety vests, stepped into the crosswalk and stood in front of cars, pick-ups and 18-wheelers headed through the Mira Loma distribution hub and firmly held their ground. A forklift came in off of Etiwanda and parked in the middle of the intersection. With the perimeter secure, WWU members and supporters poured into the cordoned-off area. Ten activists surrounded the forklift and sat down, linking their hands together with handcuffs and duct tape, waiting for police to arrive.

 

It’s increasingly clear that the Inland Empire’s warehouse workers are mad as hell and aren’t going to take exploitation any longer. Warehouse Workers United isn’t a union—not yet—but it’s a growing organization and represents a workforce grown tired of being the invisible victim of a white-collar conspiracy that manipulates the labor pool by using temporary staffing agencies to suppress wages and keep benefits out of the reach of warehouse jobs. 

 

The Inland Empire is controlled by the logistics sector—the industry that transports and warehouses goods and resources. The chokehold the industry has on the region is visible from the sky when you approach the runways at Ontario International Airport. The 336 million square feet of warehouses that stretch beyond the horizon is often lost in one of the most toxic mushroom clouds of diesel exhaust on the globe. 

 

Within these warehouse walls, some workers have sweated it out for over a decade and yet still live in poverty. 

 

Matters got worse when the bottom fell out of consumer spending and the logistics sector started to bleed warehouse jobs. During the holiday season the Kmart warehouse in Ontario began to trim its work force. The brass let workers go in groups near—but always below—50 people every 30 days, skirting state and federal labor laws that would have provided concessions to terminated employees. The workers were left without severance pay, a 401(k) or unemployment benefits.

 

By the end of January 2009, over 50 laid-off workers organized and petitioned Kmart management with a letter that asked for severance pay and recall rights. A proposed sit-down with management was denied. Workers’ requests went ignored.     

 

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Economic Crisis and the Logistics Industry: Financial Insecurity for Warehouse Workers in the Inland Empire was researched and written by Juan David De Lara, a Ph.D. candidate in geography at UC Berkeley. The paper makes a compelling case for change in the region’s logistics sector. The WWU staffers know the work well and refer to it simply as “The White Paper.” 

 

“It’s no secret that political contributions in the Inland Empire are dominated by residential and industrial developers,” says De Lara. He has witnessed industry insiders and developers manipulate local politics to satisfy corporate agendas. He offers the distribution center being built in Moreno Valley for Skechers USA Inc. by commercial real estate developer Highland Fairview as an example. 

 

Initially, the Skechers deal was lucrative enough to be known as the largest industrial lease signed by a tenant under one roof in the history of the nation, estimated at around $100 million. The commercial real estate broker in charge of the deal cited the IE’s proximity to the port of Long Beach and said the area “is one of the most dynamic industrial and distribution markets in the country . . . It’s a key logistic center for the world, really”

 

The new facility will allow the company to consolidate five warehouses in Ontario into one massive rectangular building near the 215 and 60 freeways. When finished, it will cover 1.8-million-square-feet and span over half a mile long.

 

Highland Fairview initially said it would be ready to hand keys over to Skechers in the first quarter of 2009. However, local citizens and Frank West, a now-former Moreno Valley City Council member, raised issues over the plans, such as pollution, freeway infrastructure and the mistreatment of workers by Skechers management.

 

Eventually, Fairview money was used to unseat West following a smear campaign—though the developer insists he was merely trying to galvanize public debate about development issues.

 

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I was able to interview two workers from the Skechers warehouses in Ontario. The two Spanish-speaking women had collectively worked almost 30 years in warehouses and were recently let go. Of all the terrible dilemmas faced by warehouse workers that I’d heard, it was these women’s struggles that troubled me the most. 

 

When one of the women, Olga Romero, arrived at work one day she says she was assigned to a warehouse packed with pallets full of returned shoes. The management gave the workers a quota to clean one shoe a minute to prep them to be sold again. Romero says that after two days of cleaning the shoes, the workers ran out of gloves and asked for more from supervisors who told them to continue without them.

 

Left with no other options, Romero put her hands into the previously-worn shoes and continued her job. She still had a lingering fungus infection on her right hand that she developed after she was given the task. There are no nurses at the warehouses. Health benefits do not exist. 

 

When I asked Romero if she felt Spanish  speakers were treated worse by management she was defiant. All the workers in the warehouses were treated equally poor, she says.     

 

Her co-worker, Dilma Fuentes, felt the same. However, she told me that management does threaten Spanish speakers, walking down the lines and tell them to work hard because they know who has papers and who does not.

 

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In the White Paper, De Lara cites the California Budget Project—a nonprofit policy research group— that estimates IE workers require an hourly wage of $17.48 to meet basic family needs. De Lara found that only 3 percent of the region’s blue-collar warehouse workers earned the basic wage.  In fact, 41 percent of them earn less then $10.50 per hour.

 

When you talk to De Lara and warehouse workers, it becomes clear that the temporary staffing agencies are the problem.

 

Warehouse employers use a hybrid workforce made up of temporary workers from the agencies that get paid less then those hired directly. 

 

The staffing agencies get a check for each hour logged at the various warehouses by their workers. The agencies take a substantial cut off the top, roughly 46 percent in some cases, and give the worker the rest.

 

The White Paper also concludes that workers in the bottom 25 percent of the three largest blue-collar occupational categories earn an hourly wage $8.74 or less in IE warehouse jobs.

 

And then there is the smoking gun: De Lara found that the region’s temporary employment sector grew by 575 percent between 1990 and 2007. In the final year of the growth, more than 53,000 workers were pushed through the temp agencies. During the same time frame, Southern California lost 361,000 manufacturing jobs.

 

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The cozy relationship between corporations and staffing agencies makes it hard to find the actual number of warehouse workers in the region but the WWU estimates there are over 100,000 of them. Even then, their classification remains ambiguous as some work part-time, others full-time and others occasionally.

 

It makes sense that the first act of civil disobedience carried out by WWU was a sit-in at the office of Staffmark, one of the largest staffing agencies in the region. But even the White Paper concedes temp staffing agencies are “a perfectly legitimate way of dealing with seasonal variations in the flow of goods.” But it goes further to say, “it can also be used as a way of cutting labor costs and avoiding or denying responsibility for the pay and working conditions of one’s workforce.” 

 

De Lara argues that the use of temp workers as a business model serves as a form of “anti-union insurance.”          

 

When the WWU forwarded the White Paper to U.S. Rep. Joe Baca, the Rialto congressman asked his staffers to get it into the hands of every elected official in the IE. In April, there was a special hearing in Fontana attended by Baca, Assemblywoman Norma Torres (D-Pomona), and San Bernardino County Supervisor Josie Gonzales. Officials listened to testimony from warehouse workers, union members and academics who called for reform and passage of the Employee Free Choice Act, or EFCA. 

 

Not only would the EFCA make it easier for warehouse workers to unionize, experts say, it would also prevent employers from drawing out the collective bargaining process that ultimately leads to a contract. If warehouse workers in the IE were able to unionize and negotiate a contract, a preliminary analysis by De Lara found they would be earning an hourly wage of $18.03 in two years’ time.

 

With the promise of a labor-friendly Obama administration and the gains made by Democrats in Congress, the EFCA looked as if it could pass. Then Sen. Dianne Feinstein reversed her support of the bill, citing the economic downturn as the reason. She argued the EFCA would inflict more financial damage on employers.

 

While the national politics continue to play out, workers continue to suffer. Local officials pledged to support the workers in their fight. A WWU banner with the politicians’ signatures hangs on a wall in their basement headquarters. On the other end of the room is Shepard Fairey’s iconic poster of President Obama and the word “Hope.”    

 

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At the May 28 protest, the mood goes from festive to tense. The driver of an F-150 truck grows impatient and rolls through a small group of protesters that attempt to stop him. He gets out of his vehicle several times and postures to protesters. Eventually he stops his vehicle and steps out to confront two warehouse workers who jumped into the bed of his truck.

 

Riverside County Sheriff’s deputies arrive in riot gear. 

 

A short but bloody street brawl between two protesters and the truck driver ensues but is broken up by a deputy. The deputy releases a stream of pepper spray into the face of a photographer, then a warehouse worker and then a final blast at the driver.

 

“In no way do we condone violence,” WWU spokesman Daniel Medress says at the scene. “This is a nonviolent protest.”

 

He points out that the fight involved two out of 200 supporters that gathered at the event, and emphasized that the driver tried to run over nonviolent protesters. In all, 10 protesters were arrested.

 

As I poured water over my face and tried to rinse the pepper spray from my eye I thought about the struggle of the workers, the action that had just taken place and the violence that erupted. It reminded me of a passage from Rules For Radicals, a 1971 book by Saul Alinsky, a writer regarded as the father of community organizing: “Change means Movement,” he wrote “Movement means friction.”

 

For more info about Warehouse Workers United go to www.warehouseworkersunited.org or call (877) 737-0727.


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