The Blue Collar Holler
By Alex Distefano
When times are tough, the last thing workers want to do is go on strike. But that is just what happened last week for one day, when on Wed. July 24, a group of around 30 non-unionized warehouse workers walked off the job in Ontario at a facility owned by Olivet International, an apparel and luggage company that distributes bags suitcases and more, mainly to Walmart and some other retailers.
At this facility, workers process massive amounts of bags, suitcases, luggage and other apparel items, which are then sold in retail stores. Walmart comprises 70 percent of the warehouse’s client base.
According to Guadalupe Palma, Director of Warehouse Workers United, conditions are so bad at this warehouse; the time finally came when workers had enough. “The workers were dealing with issues of safety and well being in the warehouse,” she said. “For example fire exits were blocked and boxes were stacked too high. Falling boxes and packages injured some workers. Bathrooms would not have locks and wouldn’t be clean; they didn’t have access to clean drinking water, even when it was hot.”
Palma said that despite the direct complaints to management, nothing was done to fix these outright safety violations. She said that in May, a formal written complaint was filed against the warehouse, with the California Occupational Safety and Health Administration (Cal/OSHA).
But, according to Palma, even though the State is currently investigating these allegations against the warehouse, conditions haven’t improved; in fact things have taken a turn for the worse. “Ever since this complaint was filed, management started retaliating against them, in the way of surveillance; 29 cameras were installed in the warehouse soon after the State was called to investigate,” she said. “The company also hired a consultant to scare and intimidate the workers; threatening them by saying they could lose their jobs.”
Palma also said that soon after the workers filed the complaints, they also filed a complaint directly with Walmart through their Ethics Office. “Up until last week it was still being investigated we have not gotten a response from them,” she said. “We have heard since the workers went on strike that they will be looking into it, but this is only because of media coverage that this got; they promised things will change.”
Warehouse workers did go back Friday morning, but Palma said that workers are still feeling intimidated by the company managers. “So far the company managers have not retaliated again,” Palma said. “But, workers are feeling vulnerable and weird since usually more drastic actions are taken. They are prepared for anything at this point, and some are afraid of losing their jobs as well. “
Palma insisted that just because workers are not striking, at this point, anything at this point is on the table. “These workers will do whatever it takes,” she said. “They want the company to get rid of the surveillance, the cameras, and the contractors that are there to intimidate them. We still need better working conditions and these workers will not stop until their voices are heard.
Over the course of 2012, Walmart has had to deal with similar situations in its contracted warehouse facilities across the country, including in other parts of California, Arkansas and Illinois. Palma also said that currently, The National Labor Relations Board is currently investigating federal charges related to worker intimidation and surveillance at Olivet International as well.
Palma said she is disappointed by Walmarts lack of action thus far, but is not surprised. “At first Walmart says there are no problems and they have no responsibility but then they change their position,” she said. “Walmart continues to stand by and do nothing, even as these contractors are violating Walmart’s standards. We will not stop and continue to fight to end these conditions and hold them accountable.”