Warehouse Workers for Justice Rally Outside the Housewares Show at McCormick Place.
On Sunday, March 14, Warehouse Workers for Justice rallied outside the McCormick Convention Center, which was hosting the International Home & Housewares Show, to demand justice from Bissell, a vacuum manufacturer. Clergy, warehouse workers and community members rallied to call attention to Bissell's role in the firing of workers who were trying to organize a union.
Warehouse Workers for Justice was founded by the United Electrical Workers union and helps warehouse workers organize and fight for their rights. The group has had substantial support from churches in the Joliet area; Baptist, Pentecostal, Catholic and Unitarian Universalist have all provided support for the Warehouse Workers for Justice.
According to United Electrical workers organizer Mark Meinster, Bissell is one of hundreds of manufacturers that store their goods in the Centerpoint Intermodal Center in Elwood, Illinois. Since Chicago is the only place on the continent where all of the major rail lines meet, corporate America has made Chicago the third largest storage warehouse hub in the world, after Singapore and Hong Kong. The Centerpoint Intermodal Center is actually a designated foreign trade zone, so corporations like Wal-mart and Bissell do not have to pay duties on the products shipped through the center until they are shipped out of the center and toward retail outlets.
The companies that store their goods in the warehouses use a system of contractors and sub-contractors to employee temporary employees instead of full time employees. According to Meinster, "It's very easy for these employers to hide behind other companies in terms of liabilities for labor law violations. And that's what Bissell is trying to do here." Warehouse Workers for Justice have filed several complaints with the Department of Labor, and their attempts to meet with Bissell have been blown off. Which is why they felt it was important to take their message to the public, Meinster says. They want to "make sure those retailers [at the convention center] know that they are selling a sweatshop product."
The work that the warehouse workers do was often peril filled. Eric Pano complained of working with dangerous chemicals, while Orlando Riveria described some of the injuries incurred while lifting heavy packages.
Employees of the temp agency Road Link, which does work in Maersk warehouses that Bissell stores its products in, banded together and filed to have a union election in November 2009.. They were all fired the next day.
Michael Montes was promised a job for three years working in the warehouse. He would drive an hour and half each way from his home in Cicero to the warehouse in Elwood for the job. "We were not going to get any holiday pay. Not going to get any insurance. They were cutting our hours. Once they set our pay, they cut that. That's not right. I have 3 kids and one on the way." Montes is now on unemployment and struggling to pay the bills.
Workers I spoke with complained of racial discrimination and even though 90% of home products are sold to women, the women forklift operators in the warehouse were paid $2.50 less than the men.
American Rights at Work claims that 34% of employers fire employees who attempt to form a union.