Wal-Mart warehouse workers strike to end poor working conditions, Elwood, Illinois, USA, 2012

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Timing
Time Period:  
13 September
2012
to
6 October
2012
Location and Goals
Country: 
United States
Location City/State/Province: 
Elwood, Illinois
Location Description: 
Elwood is near Joliet, the 4th largest city in Illinois (both are approximately 50 miles from Chicago).
Goals: 
A press release from Warehouse Workers for Justice states that workers wanted “fair pay for all the hours they work, safe working conditions, an end to discrimination and illegal retaliation against workers who speak up for better conditions.” The researcher was unable to find primary sources for the petition that workers submitted to Walmart management in Chicago on October 5, 2012.
 

The Wal-Mart distribution center in Elwood, Illinois, is one of the five largest in the country. Wal-Mart’s goods are imported here, shipped to smaller centers, and then sent to individual stores. However, many people who worked in the distribution centers were hired through employment contractors and were kept at “temporary” employee status, depriving them of benefits and higher pay, even if they had worked the same job for years. Conditions inside the warehouses were often unsafe and many workers experienced wage theft and discrimination by employers.

Workers in the Elwood distribution center decided to seek recourse for their grievances by filing a lawsuit against the contractor that hired them for Wal-Mart, Roadlink Workforce Solutions, on September 13, 2012. The workers accused Roadlink of wage theft and unfair timekeeping and payment practices and asked that workers be paid “for all their hours, with consistent work schedules and safety training and equipment.” Four Roadlink employees notified their supervisors of the lawsuit. Supervisors responded by telling the employees that they were “temporarily suspended” and firing four people.

In September 2012, Roadlink employed 120 people out of 400 total workers at the Elwood center. The workers there were organized through Warehouse Workers for Justice, a worker center that had been working in Elwood since 2009. Worker centers provide support and organizing power to non-unionized workers. WWJ was founded by United Electrical Workers, a union that has existed since the Great Depression. On September 15, thirty-eight Roadlink employees, part of the Warehouse Workers Organizing Committee, walked out from their jobs in protest of the Roadlink’s illegal retaliation of firing workers simply for voicing their grievances. This action became a strike when the workers refused to resume their positions and began picketing outside the plant, which they continued to do daily.

The Chicago Teachers Union was also at odds with Wal-Mart and its affiliates: the Walton Family Foundation had been giving money and support to privatization efforts in public schools. The CTU spoke out in support of the warehouse workers’ efforts, saying “CTU stands in solidarity with striking warehouse workers in Illinois and California who are fighting for their right to safe working conditions” and adding about their own grievances, “As educators, we also protest the role of the Walton Family Fund in financing efforts to privatize public education and increase the number of charter schools.” The CTU and the striking workers organized a march from Simeon Vocational High School in Chicago to a nearby Wal-Mart store, to take place on September 18. The march began with a rally where warehouse workers spoke about their experiences in the workplace. Workers spoke about excessive heat, being cheated out of pay or overtime pay, gender and racial discrimination, unfair and irregular work schedules and other grievances. People at the rally chanted “1-2-3-4 No one should be working poor! 5-6-7-8 Come on Walmart, play it straight!” and other slogans about workers' rights.

The workers then marched to the Wal-Mart. One participant reported that police were cooperative with the protestors, directing traffic and providing a “non-threatening” escort to the protestors. He also reported that one Wal-Mart employee blocked the door and told protestors that they could not protest inside, but another entrance was open and protestors were able to enter the store. Around 20 of the protestors placed leaflets inside the store, exiting soon after and ending the protest peacefully. No one was arrested.

On September 28, WWJ issued a press release announcing plans for a march and rally on October 1. The release invited people in the Chicago area to participate and support the striking workers, detailing available bus transportation to the rally. WWJ also promoted the action by creating a Facebook event.

Around 650 people joined the strikers for the event, including members from different Chicago faith, labor, and activist groups: Chicago Teachers Union, Steelworkers, Service Employees, Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW), Workers United, Action Now, Arise Chicago, Latino Union, Stand Up! Chicago, Jobs with Justice, ROC Chicago, and the Chicago Workers Collaborative. At 2 PM on October 1, the protestors met in a public park in Elwood and marched to the nearby distribution center. The center had been shut down in anticipation of the protest, and some protestors, including members of the clergy and a county Board member, blocked the entrance to the center to prevent goods from getting in or out. The cost of this shutdown to Wal-Mart is estimated to be $8 million dollars. Seventeen leaders who had participated in the block were arrested by the riot police, county sheriffs, and state police who were present to meet the protestors. The arrested protestors were released a few hours later and charged with misdemeanors.

Spokespeople for Wal-Mart denied the accusations that the working conditions and pay practices in the center were unfair. One spokesman stated that WWJ’s union affiliation was the cause for the poor treatment of workers. They accused WWJ of treating members poorly and using workers to receive more union dues and further their “political agenda.”

On October 5, workers from the Elwood distribution center delivered a petition containing more than 100,000 signatures in support of the Elwood workers’ demands. The next day, the workers were able to return to work with full pay for the 21 days they had been on strike and protection for workers who protest against the company. A press release from WWJ dated October 6, the day workers returned to their jobs at the center, states that workers will “continue the fight for safe working conditions, fair pay for all hours worked and an end to discrimination.” The results of this campaign were considered a victory by the workers.

Research Notes
Influences: 

The Elwood workers were influenced by similar protests by workers in southern California. (1)

Sources: 
Jamieson, Dave. "Warehouse Workers Strike In Illinois On Heels Of California Walkout." The Huffington Post. 17 September 2012. 26 October 2012 <http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/09/17/warehouse-workers-strike-illinois_n_1891499.html>.

Olzen, Jake. "Why direct action is working for Walmart's workers." Waging Nonviolence. 20 October 2012. 26 October 2012 <http://wagingnonviolence.org/2012/10/why-direct-action-is-working-for-walmarts-workers/>.

Uetricht, Micah. "Strike Supporters Shut Down Illinois Walmart Warehouse." Labor Notes. 2 October 2012. 26 October 2012 <http://labornotes.org/2012/10/strike-supporters-shut-down-illinois-walmart-warehouse>.

Simpson, Bob. "Chicago teachers join Elwood IL warehouse workers to confront Walmart." Daily Kos. 21 September 2012. 26 October 2012. <http://www.dailykos.com/story/2012/09/21/1134645/-Chicago-teachers-join-Elwood-IL-warehouse-workers-to-confront-Walmart>.

Wojdyla Cain, Cindy. "Rally for striking Walmart workers ends in arrests, chants." 1 October 2012. <http://napervillesun.suntimes.com/business/15503544-420/rally-for-striking-walmart-workers-ends-in-arrests-chants.html>.

"Walmart Warehouse Strikers to Return to Work with Full Back Pay." Warehouse Workers for Justice. 6 October 2012. 26 October 2012 <http://www.warehouseworker.org/news/2012/10/walmart-warehouse-strikers-to-return-to-work-with-full-back-pay/>.

Name of researcher, and date dd/mm/yyyy: 
Lekey Leidecker, 31/10/2012