Labour pains: Pushing for equity in the California workforce

In some Walmart warehouses in Southern California, labourers often don’t even have access to water.

Thousands of protesters march during the
Labourers working in Walmart warehouses in California are forbidden from unionising and pushing for rights [AFP]

Today is Labour Day in the United States, and in the year 2012, people doing backbreaking work in the heat don’t have access to clean drinking water. That’s right, in the land of the free, where corporate profits continue to reach all-time highs, workers doing actual labour, either drink brown water or have no water at all in temperatures over 100 degrees Fahrenheit (37.8 Celsius).

Since the state of California – the country’s breadbasket – issued the first heat regulations in the country in 2005, 16 farm workers have died from heat related illnesses. The Farm Worker Safety Act, which is currently on Governor Jerry Brown’s desk, will allow the 400,000 workers who pick our fruits and vegetables in unbearable heat to sue employers who repeatedly fail to comply with mandatory requirements for shade and drinking water. These are basic human rights that most of us take for granted. Governor Brown should sign this bill immediately.

In July, Southern California warehouse workers who move goods for Walmart, the world’s largest corporation, filed a complaint with the state’s Division of Occupational Safety and Health (Cal/OSHA) detailing more than a dozen violations, including no access to clean water, wage abuses, broken equipment, and unreasonable and unsafe moving quotas. Workers say they are denied access to medical care, are told they will be laid off if they can’t work while injured, and are often blocked inside the trailers they are loading for up to 30 minutes with no exit.

Ware else?

According to Warehouse Workers United, workers staff the facility 24-hours a day, seven days a week unloading Walmart goods from shipping containers that arrive from the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach and then load the goods onto long-haul trucks destined for Walmart or Sam’s Club, a subsidiary of Walmart. The warehouse is operated by National Distribution Centers of Delaware, while two staffing agencies, Warestaff and Select Staffing, supply most of the workers on site.

Inside Story: US 2012 – The decline of union power 

Ruben Valadez, 61, got a contract job with Warestaff in February. While most of us are sleeping, he’s dripping in sweat in 115-degree (46 Celsius) containers filled with boxes headed for Wal-Mart stores across the United States. The merchandise includes clothing, baby furniture, televisions, lighters, and cabinets, all made in Chinese and Mexican sweatshops.

A few weeks ago, Walmart announced that its second-quarter profits rose almost six per cent to just over $4 billion. Ruben makes $8.50 an hour with no benefits. Because he doesn’t have health insurance, he prays that he doesn’t get sick or injured on the job. He says the requirement to unload 250 boxes an hour is an impossible task, but he moves as fast as possible to avoid being fired.

Even though the heat is unbearable, especially during summer months, the drinking water supply quickly runs out, leaving workers with no choice but to buy a Gatorade or Coke from a machine. They used to have access to just one cooler of water. After complaining, they now have two. The coolers are dirty and the water is often an unsanitary brown color. Workers are only allowed to refill the bottles they must bring from home during three short breaks, two are 10-minutes each, and one is a 30-minute lunch.

This is happening in Southern California, the 15th largest economy in the world. Valadez was shocked to see how people are treated. “It’s inhumane,” he says. “They treat us like slaves. We don’t have any civil rights. If you speak up, you’ll lose your job.”

Valadez says his supervisor watches him like a hawk, even when he goes to the bathroom, and is often told that if he doesn’t like the working conditions, he can leave. Because people are desperate for work, Warestaff would have no problem finding a replacement, but Valadez won’t sit back and take the abuse. “I want people to know what’s happening. We need to stand up for our rights. We shouldn’t be intimidated and afraid of speaking up.”

At his last job as a scheduler and planner at an electronics company, which he lost in 2007, he made $17 an hour, had full benefits, and was protected by a union. These days, even mentioning the dirty word union will ensure that you’ll be followed to the bathroom and have your hours cut. Because Valadez can’t get enough hours, he can no longer afford to pay rent, recently got evicted, and is now living in a $42 per night motel.

The only way workers like Valadez will be treated with dignity, have access to clean drinking water, and make a living wage is through collective action and organising.

Fruits of labour

This is just one story of millions. Because employers know that people are desperate for work, they are hiring at the lowest wages possible with no benefits. A family member who had a decent salary with benefits was recently fired and replaced by a college graduate at half the salary and no benefits.

Mike, a 49-year-old I recently met at a homeless shelter in San Francisco, was let go from a high end restaurant he managed for $50,000 a year. He was replaced by a recent college graduate making $15 an hour with no benefits. Mike says he lost his apartment, overstayed his welcome on friend’s couches, and is now sleeping in a shelter while he searches for work.

The majority of new jobs being created during the so-called recovery pay between $7.69 and $13.38 per hour, according to a new report from the National Employment Law Project (NELP). The report found that since 2001, wages for lower-wage and median jobs declined, but increased for higher-wage occupations. The average annual earnings of the top one per cent of wage earners grew 156 per cent from 1979 to 2007, while the bottom 90 per cent had the weakest wage growth, at 17 per cent. This is not sustainable.

“If we want to understand what’s happened to the average American worker over the past 30 years, we have to look at the decline in the real value of the minimum wage. We have to look at deunionisation. We have to look at the growth of subcontracting and contingent work. And frankly, we have to acknowledge that the post-war social contract is broken. We’ve seen strong productivity growth over the last 30 years, but the majority of workers have not seen that translate into their paychecks,” said Annette Bernhardt, Policy Co-Director at the NELP.

“There is no single magic bullet, but there are plenty of policies we could institute right now that would help enormously. We need to extend unemployment benefits, raise the minimum wage, create jobs by repairing our infrastructure, and help our states avoid more layoffs of teachers, cops and firefighters. It’s just a question of political will and leadership.”

Power in numbers

We can start by ensuring that workers across the country have access to clean drinking water. The fact that this is even an issue in a country with so much wealth is beyond shameful. The six heirs to the Walmart fortune own half of the company’s stock and have a net worth equal to the combined assets of 100 million Americans. This year alone, they will make almost $3 billion in dividends from their Walmart holdings.

Warestaff, and by extension, Walmart, is violating Cal/OSHA’s regulations. California’s code of regulations requires employers to provide an adequate supply of water for drinking and washing. “If that is not the case, then we would hope that information would be provided to the district office closest to where the location is so that the appropriate Cal/OSHA office can follow up on that,” says Erika Monterroza, public information officer for Cal/OSHA. “Water should be free to employees and it should be accessible at all times.”

Stand in solidarity with these workers by supporting Warehouse Workers United, call or email Cal/OSHA, and if you shop at Walmart, ask to speak to a manager and ask why a multibillion dollar company’s warehouse contractor isn’t providing clean water to its workers. We will only see real change through collective action, not broken promises and empty rhetoric from politicians.

In addition to California’s farm workers, nannies, housekeepers, caregivers, and other domestic workers in California have fought long and hard for better working conditions, overtime pay, and regular breaks. Thanks to collective action and organising by over 200,000 mostly women and immigrants, the California Domestic Workers Bill of Rights recently passed the State Senate and is awaiting Governor Jerry Brown’s signature.

Linda Oalican, a member of Domestic Workers United says it best in this AFL-CIO video: “In isolation, a worker or a sector of workers, has no power. We can only find power in numbers. We can do that by uniting the working class.”

Rose Aguilar is the host of Your Call, a daily call-in radio show on KALW in San Francisco.

Follow her on Twitter: @roseaguilar