Warehouse Archipelago pt. 5

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As many as four million workers labor in clusters of warehouses scattered across the United States. Many are mislabeled as ‘temps’; all are poorly paid, and on-the-job injuries are high.

In the article “The Warehouse Archipelago”, John Lippert and Stephen Franklin investigate the current state of staffing in the warehouse industry.

Part Five, the final section of the weekly Chicago Reporter series Lippert and Franklin explore how hefty campaign contributions mean primarily white, union workers wield far more clout in the Biden administration than Black and Brown unorganized workers.

PRESIDENT BIDEN seems more inclined than either of

his two Democratic predecessors to regard unions as part of the bedrock of his political base, says Nelson Lichtenstein, a labor historian at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

But for now, hefty campaign contributions mean the primarily white, unionized electricians getting paid $80 an hour to build a warehouse wield far more clout in the Democratic Party than the Black and brown unorganized workers who work in warehouses and make just $15, says Roberto Clack, director of the Warehouse Workers for Justice in Joliet.

Born out of workers’ complaints, lawsuits, political pressure, and worker advocacy groups, experts say, Illinois has the nation’s strongest law protecting warehouse workers. But Tim Bell of the Chicago Workers’ Collaborative says it’s not been enough.

“Enforcement comes from worker complaints and [workers] are terrified of complaining,” he says.

What are the solutions?

Only three states—Illinois, California, and Massachusetts— have comprehensive laws. So what should stronger laws do? How can they address warehouse workers’ multiple plights?

Workers need protections against discrimination because of race and gender. State agencies should track staffing agencies’ hiring to signal any abuses and abusive patterns.

Workers need to be provided with safe equipment, clothing, and training by the staffing agencies and host companies. Warehouse workers suffer high rates of injuries on hazardous jobs. And because of crowded warehouse conditions, they faced high rates of exposure to the COVID virus at the peak of the outbreak.

Workers need to be given training for long-term skills and the chance for long-term jobs when openings come up. This will reduce the slotting of workers permanently into lowwage, low-skill jobs.

Workers should know their basic rights. In a time of fissured workplaces, they should know who they are working for: what staffing agency, who provides workers’ compensation, what their hours are, and the length of their assignments.

State and federal safety agencies should increase their inspections of warehouses heavily staffed by temporary workers. Workers should also be protected against retaliation by firing with state laws that protect whistleblowers.

Workers need a voice on the job, and this can come from worker advocacy groups or unions. The shrinkage of union presence in warehouses, and companies’ resistance to unions, promotes a silenced workforce. Federal labor law needs a wholesale rewrite, so that workers can form unions to give them a share of power in their workplace, without fear of being fired.

Workers need state and federal agencies to crack down on the misclassification violations that are actually at the core of the warehouse industry’s business model, in which full-time workers are mislabeled as temps, underpaid, deprived of benefits, and shunted off to staffing agencies.

For now, such reforms seem a distant possibility for workers like Rebecca Wells, the Mars candy packer.

When she first arrived at the warehouse, she was assigned to the same packing lines on which Ronald Jackson and Mark Balentine had previously worked. But she heard no discussion of how they and other workers had staged a COVID-19 safety protest. It was as if they’d never existed.

As she settled into her job, Wells learned to block any distractions so she could keep up. At times, she even preferred to work in total silence. “The speed of the belt,” she said. “That’s what I concentrate on.”

But the work has continued to grind her down. Workers worried for weeks that they’d face a pay cut when Mars dropped XPO and hired another logistics provider, DhL Supply Chain, to run the entire warehouse. They found out only after the fact that DhL had decided to stick with Staffmark and make no change in its pay scale for temporary workers.

In response to queries, a DhL official defended the firm’s COVID-19 precautions and added that the nLRb had dismissed Mars workers’ claims of retaliatory dismissals. So did a Staffmark official, who said the firm followed CDC guidelines, but would not comment further.

Wells started applying for jobs closer to her home. It was a way to buy time to think about her next steps. She debates continually with family members about moving, but one wants to go to Alabama and another to Texas. There’s anguish in her voice as she mulls over her future. And in that anguish is a reminder of how much Chicago has lost, even as it remains one of the world’s great crossroads for moving freight. Chicago was once a promised land that attracted millions of Black and brown migrants because it offered a shot at a better life. But for Wells and thousands like her, Chicago has become just another island in the warehouse archipelago.

 “The Warehouse Archipelago” was first published in The American Prospect.

About the writers:

JOHN LIPPERT
John Lippert was a line worker for eight years at General Motors before becoming a reporter at the Detroit Free Press and then Bloomberg, where he was a senior writer.

STEPHEN FRANKLIN
Stephen Franklin is a former labor reporter for the Chicago Tribune and author of ‘Three Strikes: Labor’s Heartland Losses and What They Mean for Working Americans.’