Fighting for Justice for Warehouse Workers
By Roberto Clack, Warehouse Workers for Justice
Warehousing is a vital part of Chicagoland’s economy with over 190,000 jobs, and it’s growing. While the retail apocalypse continues to rage with over 5,000 stores closing in 2018 and a similar number predicted for 2019, it is Chicagoland and warehousing where job growth continues to shift as e-commerce reshapes our consumer economy. These changes in our economy and Chicagoland’s strategic location for business necessitates worker leadership that can stand up to discrimination and fight for worker, racial and gender justice in one of the state’s largest and most important industries. Leaders from Warehouse Workers for Justice (WWJ) have been at the forefront of workplace justice campaigns in support of worker’s rights.
Laseant Sardin, 59, from the south side of Chicago would drive 40 miles every day to work an overnight shift at Walmart’s largest warehouse in the country in Elwood, Illinois. In January of 2019, Walmart announced that it would be “in-sourcing” its warehouse, ending its long term practice of using a 3rd party logistics company to run its warehouses. Workers were initially excited by the prospect of raises and better benefits. “I was supposed to go from $15.50 to $18.30 an hour, I was very excited,” said Sardin.
However, this excitement would turn into disappointment when predominantly Black workers like Sardin were told in early March that they would not be retained by Walmart even though they had worked their warehouse for years because of criminal backgrounds. “I made a mistake in 1985, there weren’t jobs and I had a son and tried to sell drugs to make a living to take care of my family. In 1985 I got busted by an undercover police officer selling cocaine and did 18 months of prison, said Sardin. “Afterwards, I knew I had to take care of my son and have stayed out of trouble ever since. Someone shouldn’t be held back forever, we all make mistakes.”
Sardin and his coworkers would go on to file a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission for racial discrimination and organized a press conference that would gain national attention . The leadership and actions of Sardin and his coworkers have contributed to a larger discussions on reintegration of returning citizens, issues of criminalization of the Black community and how this creates barriers to employment for Black workers.
“I am glad we came out as a fighting force because it was the right thing to do. I love that there is an organization like WWJ that I can be a part of to do something about this. I don’t want to see this happen to anyone else,” said Sardin. While the Walmart’s discrimination case works its way through the courts, a gender discrimination case brought forward by WWJ’s Women’s Committee at a warehouse in Bolingbrook, Illinois concluded after the 3rd Party Logistics company MTIL entered a consent decree with the Illinois Attorney General.
“”As a former worker at MTIL, there were murmurs that women and men workers were divided into “lights” and “heavies” said Erica Rand, 24, a former temp worker at MTIL through Clear Staffing, “While I worked at the company as a temp, I experienced unwelcome sexual advances from coworkers, which I shared with the Attorney General. I am glad action was taken and that there are resources being provided to make sure women feel comfortable in the workplace. Better working conditions, free of discrimination should be reinforced in all warehouses and I am glad Warehouse Workers for Justice was able to help some of us come forward.”
The courage of worker leaders like Rand led to the Attorney General’s office filing a lawsuit against the owner of the warehouse, IFCO, it’s 3rd Party Logistics company, MTIL and the staffing agency at the warehouse, Clear Staffing. According to the lawsuit, MTIL’s female workers were subjected to pervasive sexual harassment in the workplace, including unwelcome sexual advances and sexually explicit comments. The lawsuit further alleged that MTIL requested temporary workers from various staffing agencies on the basis of their sex, using the code words “heavy” for male workers and “light” for female workers.”
As a result of the investigation (IFCO and Clear Staffing entered their own consent decrees last year), MTIL has agreed to pay a $75,000 fine and to undergo three years of monitoring by the Attorney General’s office that will require the company to post a complaint hotline in the facility, provide specialized training in harassment and discrimination for staff, post job positions for forklift drivers on the Women In Trades website, and require the showing of a daily video in the lunchroom of the facility that addresses harassment and discrimination.
The MTIL organizing campaign fundamentally changed the operation of a major warehouse for women and sent a message to the rest of the industry to not engage in discriminatory practices towards women workers. While the Walmart case will likely remain unresolved in the short term, former workers have hope when they previously had none. The Walmart Workers for Justice organizing committee’s goal is to have a similar effect as Warehouse Workers for Justice’s women’s committee in changing discriminatory practices in a major employer. These two cases demonstrate the value of supporting worker leadership like Sardin and Rand, who are able to stand up to make fundamental changes in their lives and workplaces. The more we can support and grow this leadership, the closer we will come to fulfilling our goal of creating stable, family-supporting jobs free from racial and gender discrimination.
Roberto Clack, Warehouse Workers for Justice
Originally published at https://woodsfundchi.wordpress.com on June 4, 2019.