In the Footsteps of Cèsar Chàvez

By Tommy A. Purvis

Posted September 13, 2012 in News

Photo courtesy of Warehouse Workers United

Warehouse workers strike and kick off a 50-mile “WalMarch”

Warehouse workers—who have not yet been able to form a union—from Walmart subcontractor NFI Industries went on strike this week for the first time ever in the history of the Inland Empire’s warehouse worker movement. Dozens of them will join a 50-mile, six-day pilgrimage set to raise awareness of the plight of warehouse workers that is set to start this morning from the 4100 block of Hamner Avenue in Mira Loma and head to La Placita Olivera in downtown Los Angeles. The effort—organized by the workers’ rights group Warehouse Workers United (WWU) and chronicled on Twitter with the hashtag #WalMarch—is the latest tactic in an ongoing effort to bring a change to illegal work conditions found at subcontractors in the Walmart supply chain.

“The march is a bold action for workers who live in the shadows,” says Elizabeth Brennan, the communication director for WWU. “In the tradition of the farm workers and janitors, dozens of warehouse workers and their supporters will march along the same route goods travel through the Los Angeles basin to and from the Inland Empire.”

A letter—signed by more than 4,200 supporters—from warehouse workers Limber Herrera and Marta Medina for Walmart CEO Mike Duke and the rest of the executive brass will be delivered upon arrival in L.A. The letter requests an in-person meeting between workers and company decision makers blamed for the sweatshop-like work conditions. The letter cites unsafe working conditions—indoor heat levels can reach up to 120 degrees, workers say—in the largest concentration of warehouses on the globe. Workers also complain about a lack of proper ventilation and pollutants that they allege cause nose bleeds and vomiting.

Medina—who currently writes for the California Labor Federation’s “Labor’s Edge: Views from the California Labor Movement” blog—says she can still recall her most humiliating experience as a warehouse worker. She was eight months pregnant when she received a Walmart order to ship 2,000 boxes in one hour. Medina could barely lift the boxes and felt like she might lose her baby. She kept working as she held her midsection, and said a silent prayer in her head, with thoughts of her 11-year-old son in El Salvador. After giving birth via cesarian, Media says she came back to work and was told by her supervisor to work hard—or be replaced.

But before the marchers take foot to Los Angeles today, Assemblywoman Norma Torres (D-Pomona) and members of the clergy are scheduled to rally workers and their supporters near Schneider Logistics in Mira Loma. During a raid there last year, officials with the state Division of Labor Standards Enforcement found enough violations of workers’ rights to lead to a current class action lawsuit that seeks up to $10 million in backpay.

Assemblywoman Torres is behind a warehouse worker bill—pushed through the state legislature at the end of August and awaiting Gov. Jerry Brown’s signature—will allow employees to pursue legal actions against the corporations that subcontract warehouse work to logistic firms in a multilayered hydra-like system that encourages exploitation. A sanctions motion filed in Carillo v. Schneider alleges that the logistics firm is “engaging in massive fraud, destruction of evidence and lying to mask its responsibility for the unlawful treatment of warehouse workers.”

“AB 1855 will provide warehouse workers in the logistics industry the same protections against labor exploitation as temporary workers in the construction, farm labor, janitorial or security industries when they are hired by temporary staffing agencies,” Torres said via a press release.

The pilgrimage, or the peregrinación, of warehouse workers is a new tactic for WWU organizers that often find inspiration in the playbook United Farm Workers (UFW). In the spring of 1966 Cèsar Chàvez led a 340-mile march from Delano to the steps of the state Capitol in Sacramento. The action, along with a four-month boycott of Schenley Vineyards, led to the first union contract between a grower and farmworkers.

In the spirit of those who came before them, the participants in “WalMarch” will sleep on church floors and rely on community organizations for meals and support for the duration of the journey.

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