WalMarch Ends, But Warehouse Strike Continues

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September 25, 2012 in Labor & Economy

Rodrigo Pena Photography

By the last mile through the grid in Downtown Los Angeles, the long, hot stretches of dusty San Bernardino County were a distant memory for 50 warehouse workers and supporters who marched 50 miles in six days from the Inland Empire to the city center.

Walking through the summer heat, warehouse workers who move Walmart merchandise took their protest for better working conditions out of the shadows in Riverside and San Bernardino counties and into LA. On the final day of the WalMarch, weary marchers, who slept on church floors and dined on the good graces of supporters, were met by hundreds of supporters on the steps of LA City Hall.

“We became a family along the way,” said David Fancote.

After several appeals to Walmart and its contractors to end retaliation and fix poor working conditions at one warehouse dedicated to moving Walmart goods in Mira Loma, California, the workers —who do not have a recognized union—went on strike to protest unfair labor practices committed by their employers, NFI and Warestaff. About 30 workers walked off the job Sept. 12. They embarked on the 50-mile trek with other warehouse workers, students, members of the clergy and more supporters the next day.

Days later, warehouse workers in Illinois also walked off the job to protest retaliation at a Walmart distribution center in Elwood, Illinois.

Warehouse workers marched along the same path that goods are transported to and from the warehouses to retail stores. They are routinely forced to work in 110-degree heat without fans; heat and pollutants have made workers vomit and get bloody noses, and workers do not have access to clean water or regular breaks to deal with the heat and with faulty, dangerous equipment.

Along the way they drew on the support of others.

The United Farm Workers of America, whose historic pilgrimage in the 1960s that helped improve working conditions for farm laborers and served as a model for warehouse workers, joined the pilgrimage one day. Walmart associates lent their support to warehouse workers another day.

“We were tired of going to work and being retaliated against for trying to improve our jobs,” said Limber Herrera. “To march and to feel the support and encouragement of others further convinced me we are doing the right thing and that we will be successful.”

In fact, workers collected more than 120,000 signatures on a petition calling on Walmart to meet with workers to hear about their experiences working inside Walmart-contracted warehouses in Southern California.

On Sept. 17, warehouse workers in five cities across the country delivered copies of the petition. Groups of warehouse workers and supporters in Chicago, New Jersey, Irvine, California, Los Angeles and the Silicon Valley delivered the signed document to Walmart executives. David Garcia helped deliver the petition in Atherton, bringing it to Walton heir and Walmart board member Greg Penner’s home in Silicon Valley. Workers built a tower of boxes to symbolize the boxes of Walmart goods they load on the job.

The same week warehouse worker Javier Rodriguez cornered Walmart executive Rajan Kamalanathan, who heads the company’s ethical outsourcing initiative, at a private event in Washington, D.C. A surprised Kamalanathan promised to look into warehouse workers concerns.

On the steps of City Hall, surrounded by supporters, Raymond Castillo thanked hundreds of supporters.

“I had to do something to improve our jobs. I help Walmart profit, but I can barely pay my bills,” he said. “I have to work to care for my wife and baby, but it’s hard to do that with this job. For me the decision to go on strike was hard, but it was necessary.”

After workers concluded the WalMarch, they returned to the picket line in Riverside County to win safe working conditions and an end to retaliation.

This post first appeared on the Warehouse Workers United site and is republished with permission.

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