California Warehouse Workers Fight Retaliation

California warehouse workers organized, filed suit—and now are about to lose their jobs. They're calling on Walmart to enforce its own Supply Chain Code of Conduct. Photo: WWU.

David Acosta had seen a lot of illegality in the warehouse where he works in the Inland Empire, a yawning concrete distribution complex that stretches for miles east of Los Angeles. Getting paid a piece rate instead of an actual wage, people losing their jobs for pointing out safety violations—it was clear that something was wrong.

So when investigators from the California Division of Labor Standards Enforcement began to look into complaints of wage theft at the staffing agency who hired him, Acosta decided to cooperate. He and his co-workers had already been organizing with Warehouse Workers United a campaign backed by Change to Win.

With WWU’s assistance, Acosta and more than 100 co-workers filed a federal class-action lawsuit against his employer, Rogers Premier, for years of stolen wages. The lawsuit details that the workers were being paid by the amount they moved rather than an hourly wage. Workers were forced to stay at the warehouse waiting for shipments to arrive, on the threat of losing their jobs.

The workers’ organizing may have cost them their jobs. After Rogers Premier was fined hundreds of thousands of dollars by California’s labor commissioner for bad record-keeping, the company was dismissed by the next employer up the food chain, Schneider Logistics.

Schneider is one of the country’s largest shipping and warehousing companies. When it gets rid of Rogers, close to 100 workers stand to lose their jobs in California, and 55 more in Illinois. Behind the whole scheme stands Walmart—the purchaser of the hundreds of thousands of goods that pass through Rogers and Schneider every day. Walmart’s relentless pressure to cut costs and turnaround time squeezes its contractors, like Schneider, who in turn squeeze their subcontractors, like Rogers, who put workers like Acosta in a vise.

The case shows the difficulty of organizing workers across the dizzying array of contractors that operate in warehouses. Targeting one temp agency or warehouse at a time is like attacking the mythical Hydra: As soon as you lop off one head, two more appear, obscuring the real source of power—the giant corporations at the top of the chain. WWU is demanding that Walmart tell Schneider to rehire the workers directly.

Consumer Economy’s Backbone

Nearly half of U.S. imports pass through the ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles. More than 100,000 people are employed in the massive complex of warehouses in the Inland Empire, loading and unloading consumer goods from Asia, and workers there bear the brunt of inconsistent schedules, unsafe workplaces, and aggressive bosses.

After investigators arrived at his warehouse October 12, the state fined Acosta’s employer and other staffing agencies for failing to keep accurate records of hours worked, a sign they had been shorting workers’ wages.

“They would do whatever they want to do to us, and we just had to put our heads down,” said Acosta, a father of three who is facing unemployment February 24. “But now we’re together, we’re united.”

Walmart Behind It All

All of the goods moved by Acosta and his co-workers have one destination: the shelves of Walmart stores across the country. WWU is calling on the company to take responsibility for the rampant lawbreaking that takes place in its supply chain.

“If you read Walmart’s ‘Standards for Suppliers,' it looks great,” says Sheharyar Kaoosji, a staffer with WWU. “But it’s not enforced.”

The standards demand that employers in Walmart’s supply chain abide by labor and employment law and provide safe and healthy workplaces for their employees.

WWU has called on Walmart to enforce its own standards and to tell Schneider to rehire the fired workers, but has received no reply. WWU has filed suit in federal court to force Schneider to rehire the workers, saying they’re victims of retaliation for their organizing. When WWU contacted Walmart late last year about similar issues, the company responded with a “Dear Customer” form letter.

WWU has been organizing since 2009 in the Inland Empire, where the bottom quarter of workers make less than $8.74 an hour. The end goal is to force Walmart and other major retailers to take responsibility for their supply chains and to turn warehouse jobs into decent jobs: full-time, with a living wage and freedom to join a union.

WWU is working with local community leaders and politicians to raise the stakes for Walmart and Schneider. A petition to Wal-Mart to take responsibility for its supply chain has more than 5,000 signatures. A rally on January 18 targeting Schneider brought together more than 150 people from unions and from Occupy Riverside and Occupy UC Riverside.

A Culture of Lawbreaking

The fines levied against Rogers were part of a crackdown that saw Inland Empire warehouse operators and temp agencies hit by more than a million dollars in fines in September.

That pressure continues. On January 18, another warehouse operator and its staffing agency were fined $256,000 by Cal-OSHA for rampant safety violations, including inadequate fall protection on high-rise order pickers, unstable storage stacking, and unlocked controls on bailers and compactors. Cal-OSHA is also investigating a heat-related death there last summer. The warehouses can routinely be hotter than 100 degrees.

Acosta believes he and his co-workers, with WWU, can make warehousing a safe and livable job. “We started with a little group and now there’s a majority of us,” he said. “We are a community fighting to make the change we need to make.”