On the picket line

By on September 22, 2012

Warehouse workers on strike in Calif., Ill.

Workers at warehouses in major Walmart distribution centers in California and Illinois have been organizing against horrendous conditions for more than a year. Lack of access to clean water, basic health care, regular breaks and properly functioning equipment, on top of exposure to pollutants, improper ventilation in high heat, frequent workplace injuries (boxes can weigh up to 250 lbs.) and retaliation if workers protest, are common. Such basic labor violations have forced the workers to file unfair labor practice suits against their employers, who are subcontractors of Walmart, the largest, wealthiest, greediest retailer in the U.S. and the world. Workers’ wages are low — $8 per hour and $250 a week, or $12,000 per year, according to Warehouse Workers for Justice.

Even though the 85,000 workers in this industry do not yet have union representation, they dared to strike — going out first in Mira Loma, Calif., on Sept. 12, followed on Sept. 15 in Ellwood, Ill. On Sept. 13, organizers in Ontario, Calif., began a “WalMarch,” a 50-mile, six-day protest to demand that Walmart take responsibility and live up to its own “Standards for Suppliers.” To learn more about WalMarch (follow it on Twitter #WalMarch) and sign a petition supporting the workers’ demands, visit warehouseworkersunited.org. For more information about the struggle in Illinois, visit www.warehouseworker.org.

Hot and Crusty struggle continues

About to be fired by a union-busting boss, the mostly immigrant workers at the East 63rd Street Hot and Crusty, part of a chain of cafés in New York City, occupied the restaurant on Aug. 31. After being evicted by the cops, they had the audacity to open their own sidewalk café outside the restaurant, all the while demanding that owner Mark Samson recognize the Hot and Crusty Workers Association.

This spring the workers, who are mostly undocumented and who have used in-your-face tactics to protest below-minimum-wage pay and verbal and sexual harassment, won thousands of dollars in back pay and safer working conditions. On Sept. 8, after a heroic year-long struggle with support from Occupy Wall Street, the Laundry Workers Center and several unions, the workers signed an agreement with a new owner stipulating that all workers will be reinstated, that the union will be recognized for present and future employees, and that a union hiring hall will be set up. (AlterNet.org, Sept. 8) But a major setback occurred on Sept. 14: The owners of the building have refused to sign a lease with the new owner.

How did the workers respond to this heavy-handed attack by a parasitic landlord in league with the 1%? They resumed picketing Sept. 17 from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. in defense of their property right to a job. La lucha continua. (Hot and Crusty Solidarity Committee email, Sept. 17)

Queens, N.Y., car washers join union

It took only six months of organizing by the Department Store Union (RWDSU) for workers at Astoria Car Wash and Hi-Tek Car Wash and Lube in Queens, N.Y., to vote to join the union. In the process, the mostly immigrant workers faced great risks, including deportation. “Yet the conditions are so bad in the industry that they felt they didn’t have much to lose by standing up,” said RWDSU President Stuart Applebaum. (New York Times, Sept. 9)

In July, the workers, with the help of Make the Road New York and New York Communities for Change, filed a federal lawsuit alleging that for at least six years they have been paid less than the minimum wage, received no overtime and suffered unhealthy working conditions. In fact, a 2008 New York State investigation of 84 car washes in the city revealed that 1,380 workers were underpaid by $6.5 million. However, nothing was done to change conditions until the workers stepped forward.

Though organizing in the city is difficult, with 5,000 workers at 200 individually owned locations, the workers are inspired by a similar campaign in Los Angeles that won collective bargaining agreements — with higher wages and better working conditions — at several car wash companies earlier this year.

States that boost minimum wage have fewer job losses

A study by the Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center of six New England states between 1995 and 2011 found that when states raised the minimum wage in recent recessions, their economies had fewer job losses than those that did not. New Hampshire, which raised the minimum wage several times during that period, had the smallest decline in employment. Rhode Island, the only state that did not increase its minimum wage, had the largest decline, at 5.9 percent. That’s 2.5 percent higher than the 3.4 percent drop in New Hampshire. The other states studied were Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts and Vermont.

The study notes that “although employment has not returned to pre-recession levels in any of these states, growth has been faster … in the three states with the highest minimum wages.” The reason: when people make more money, they can buy more, so more jobs are needed to accommodate the demand!

This study provides a living example of why the federal minimum wage must be increased. It’s estimated that if it were raised to $9.80 by July 1, 2014, 100,000 jobs would be created.

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