Bed Bath and Broke: Warehouse Workers Go for Election

Warehouse workers organizing in key logistics hubs across the country could get a shot in the arm from a union vote at a big Bed Bath and Beyond distribution center in New Jersey. Photo: UFCW.

Warehouse workers organizing in key logistics hubs across the country could get a shot in the arm from a union vote at a big Bed Bath and Beyond distribution center in New Jersey.

The Food and Commercial Workers are seeking to make the warehouse, just south of Newark along the I-95 corridor, the first union facility in the chain. The Bed Beth and Beyond empire contains more than 1,000 retail stores and 48,000 employees.

The UFCW filed for a Labor Board vote May 23 among the site’s 800 workers, 90 percent of whom are Latino. The warehouse handles fulfillment for both online orders and stores in New York and neighboring states, running 24 hours a day on three shifts.

Betania Valdez, who started work in the warehouse in 2008, a year after it opened, said workers sought out the UFCW to address low wages, favoritism in raises, rampant safety issues, and unaffordable and unattainable health care.

The election filing comes as UFCW is pressing campaigns throughout the retail industry. The giant Target chain was ordered Monday by the National Labor Relations Board to hold a new union election at a Long Island store after the NLRB agreed with the UFCW’s complaints that, in an election last summer, the company illegally interrogated workers, threatened them with retaliation, and suggested the store could close. Although workers turned down the union at the Long Island store, it still closed, in what management terms a “remodeling.”

In the New Jersey warehouse, Bed Bath and Beyond new hires start a quarter above minimum wage, at $7.50 an hour. After four years Valdez has seen her wage creep up to $8.87. She’s angry that she has no health insurance and just three paid sick days a year, as she and others struggle with respiratory problems she links to the perpetually dusty warehouse.

Valdez said managers are notoriously stingy about leave time. She has two weeks off in theory but hasn’t seen her family in the Dominican Republic in four years because when workers request time off, managers say they’ll “think about it.”

“I got a 17-cent raise in my last review, but I know people who got 4 cents,” Valdez said. “They say the economy is bad but we know they’re making plenty of money.”

Indeed, the big-box domestic goods retailer posted 8.5 percent sales growth last year and a profit of nearly $1 billion.

9 TO 5 TO 9

Heysoll Rodriguez, a UFCW organizer, says about half of the Bed Bath and Beyond workers she’s spoken to have second jobs. They’ll work 5 a.m. till 2:30 p.m. and rush off to catch a five-hour shift elsewhere.

The organizing committee has good representation across the various departments and all three shifts, Rodriguez says, and has been strong enough to shut down the captive-audience meetings that management is using to slander the union. Now, she says, managers running the sessions won’t take questions. But they are shifting leaders of the campaign to new jobs almost daily, in a show of power that’s meant to isolate pro-union workers.

Rodriguez says the campaign at Bed Bath and Beyond is complicated by the fact that many of the workers are new immigrants. Many have been told that if they attempt to change their Social Security number, a frequent practice to keep up with government reports that their numbers are invalid, they’ll have to reapply for their jobs.

But many workers are already bound to each other in family networks, home-town associations, and their own domestic situations. Almost the whole workforce lives in three New Jersey towns, making it easier to meet and talk away from the shop floor, which is constantly patrolled by panicky managers now that the union is in the open.

“Organizing is about risk,” Rodriguez said. “Employers will do anything in their power to keep the union out.

“But we tell people, you came to this country for the same reason you want the union. You believed you could deal with the language, find a job, and send money home. You took a risk because you believed in yourself.”

WHO’S THE BOSS?

The New Jersey warehouse stands out for an important reason—the vast majority of the workers are employees of Bed Bath and Beyond. In contrast, a significant portion of warehouse labor is routed through temporary agencies. This arms-length relationship allows the corporate owners of the goods passing through the centers to avoid responsibility for wage-cheating, safety issues, or sexual harassment claims.

Unions are often reluctant to organize temp workers, because turnover is high and leverage is weak, since the corporation can dump one temp agency and replace it, along with the workers.

But in three strategic locations, warehouse workers are organizing to attack the layers of opaque ownership and myriad problems of high-stress, low-pay work in the retail distribution network.

Warehouse Workers for Justice in Illinois, Warehouse Workers United in California, and the New Labor worker center in New Jersey are combining their resources to tackle abuses in warehouses.

The New Jersey organizing is supported by Change to Win, the union federation that includes UFCW. New Labor and Change to Win rallied at UFCW’s press conference announcing the Bed Bath and Beyond election filing, and they partnered to produce a report on conditions in the state’s warehouses.

The study, “New Jersey’s Supply Chain Pain,” is based on a survey of 291 logistics workers. Many reported they are not paid in full for the hours they work and often see paychecks delayed.

Ninety-three percent lose at least an hour’s pay each day for transportation costs charged by the company—which the study says is a legally dubious deduction. Almost nine in 10 have no health insurance, and earnings are woefully low: 70 percent take home less than $8.50 an hour.

If the Bed Bath and Beyond workers organize, said New Labor’s director Marien Casillas Pabellon, “we’re going to have to lift standards for temp workers as well as direct hires so it doesn’t become a competition.

“These big firms create pockets of opportunism to bring standards down,” she said. “Organizing closes that space.”