Last November, Phil Bailey’s boss at Roadlink Workforce Solutions, a firm providing temporary staff to businesses, fired him and a co-worker, accusing them of having put up pro-union stickers in their workplace. Bailey denied any involvement. When two other workmates came to his defense, their boss fired them as well. All four workers filed charges with the National Labor Relations Board, which issued a formal complaint at the end of February saying that Roadlink had violated the workers’ federally protected right to “concerted action” for “mutual aid.” The NLRB has planned a hearing in May on its order that Roadlink reinstate the four workers with back pay.
But Bailey wants Walmart to make sure he gets his job back now.
Why Walmart? Because Walmart owns the giant distribution center in Elwood, Ill., where Bailey worked. As with most of its logistics hubs, the world’s largest retailer contracts with one firm—Schneider Logistics—to manage the warehouse, and Schneider subcontracts with several staffing companies, including Roadlink, to provide most of the workforce. Such complex, layered contractual relations insulate Walmart from responsibilities to employees and make it easy to get rid of workers by canceling contractors if, for example, workers ever tried to form a union.
“Everything in there is set by Walmart,” Bailey says. “They tell Schneider how much has to be shipped every day and the staffing levels. It’s very much Walmart running the show.”
As members of the Warehouse Workers Organizing Committee, Bailey and co-workers are indeed trying to form a union to negotiate hours of work, pay, safety protection, and enforcement of federal and state labor laws. Those critical issues provoked roughly 40 workers from Walmart’s Elwood warehouse, including Bailey, to strike for three weeks starting last September 15. But since their return, workers say, Roadlink and other staffing subcontractors have harassed, disciplined and dismissed workers who are union supporters or who take even modest, legal actions, like wearing union t-shirts. At times, the subcontractors disciplined workers with cooperation of Schneider, which the NLRB named as a respondent in its recent complaint.
But Walmart, whose representatives frequently visit the warehouse, according to workers, ultimately calls the shots by setting terms for the contractors. No union recognition or contract with those contractors would mean much without Walmart’s acquiescence. And Walmart maintains—but rarely enforces—its Standards for Suppliers, which among other provisions, requires respect for workers’ freedom of association.
As workers in Walmart’s distribution centers from Chicago to California have organized and protested over the past couple of years, they have demanded with growing intensity that the retail and logistics giant take responsibility for warehouse working conditions. In January, lawyers with the support group and worker center Warehouse Workers United (WWU) added Walmart to the list of defendants in a case charging massive wage theft at the company’s Mira Loma, Calif., warehouse. WWU recently presented two Walmart board members petitions with 20,000 signatures asking Walmart to take responsibility for protecting rights of workers employed by its contractors and suppliers. In January, the state of California ruled that Quetico LLC, a Chino, Calif., warehouse serving mainly Walmart, had cheated its workers out of more than $1 million in wages over three years. (The company has said it will appeal and, according to workers, has harassed workers more frequently since the state announced its findings.)
At the Elwood, Illinois, warehouse, workers say they believe it’s unlikely that Schneider will renew its subcontract with Roadlink at the end of April. The workers thus feel greater urgency about Walmart intervening promptly with Roadlink to re-hire workers that the NLRB says were unjustly fired—although workers could still win their back pay if a settlement were reached later, as they would have a better chance of getting a job with a new subcontractor if they were working at the warehouse when a new contractor starts operations. A Warehouse Workers for Justice internet campaign launched on March 12 mobilized thousands of supporters on its first day to ask Walmart to intervene.
Still out of work, Bailey says, “We should be returned to our jobs in that warehouse whatever shell games Walmart plays. I’d like my job back because I was illegally fired. I’m confident about getting my back pay, but getting the job back is the more important point.”
Mike Compton, another leader of the Warehouse Workers Organizing Committee, also wants his job back at the Elwood warehouse. In November, during breaks, after work, at ball games and at other occasions when he was not working, Compton collected the signatures of about 175 warehouse employees from half a dozen subcontractors on a petition about workplace grievances. On November 15, he was preparing to join a delegation of workers and community supporters to deliver the petition to Roadlink managers when his boss told him, “I’m taking you out of service.”
“I’d never heard that phrase used [about] people before,” Compton said, “but they treat us like machines anyway.” The next day, managers called to say he was suspended; the next week, he received a second call telling him that he was terminated. They accused him of disrupting work by collecting signatures during his work hours before the petition presentation, but Compton denies their charge, saying he had carefully concealed the previously signed petition in his jacket all morning for safekeeping.
Compton wants Walmart to enforce its Standards for Suppliers and insist that Roadlink recall him to work. “That was one thing we wanted when we went out on strike—for Walmart to take responsibility for workers,” he says. “They have standards for suppliers, but I’ve never seen them, and they sure aren’t followed. I’m still trying to get my job back because legally I think I should be back, and I want to show other workers, ‘Look, I stood up, and I’m still here.’”
And that’s a message that Walmart—despite its professed standards, and despite the law of the land—apparently does not want other workers to hear.
This article was originally posted on the Working In These Times on March 18, 2013. Reprinted with Permission.
About the Author: David Moberg, a senior editor of In These Times, has been on the staff of the magazine since it began publishing in 1976. Before joining In These Times, he completed his work for a Ph.D. in anthropology at the University of Chicago and worked for Newsweek. He has received fellowships from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and the Nation Institute for research on the new global economy.