Rally for striking Walmart workers ends in arrests, chants
By Cindy Wojdyla Cain firstname.lastname@example.org October 1, 2012 5:04PM
Updated: November 3, 2012 6:20AM
ELWOOD — Police dressed in riot gear arrested 17 peaceful protesters Monday as they sat in the middle of Centerpoint Drive blocking the Walmart warehouse entrance.
The group, which was surrounded by hundreds of fellow protesters, sang “We Shall Overcome” as they were handcuffed and walked to a police transport unit.
The sit-in was part of a rally to support striking warehouse workers who walked off the job Sept. 15 to protest unfair labor practices at the massive warehouse. About 38 workers who joined the strike are picketing the warehouse every morning.
The rally organized by Warehouse Workers for Justice (WWJ) drew an estimated 600 people — including many from unions, community organizations and faith-based groups in Chicago — to the Elwood site. They gathered in a park on Deer Run and walked, sang and chanted along Mississippi Avenue on their way to the warehouse’s shipping entrance on Centerpoint Drive.
Once there, squad cars from the Will County sheriff’s police and Elwood police flanked the group to the north and south and about 25 riot police from a Mobile Field Force Team gathered on the other side of the fence in the Walmart warehouse parking lot.
The police team, which one onlooker said resembled a paramilitary group, used a bullhorn to ask the group to disperse or risk arrest and “chemical or less lethal munitions being deployed.”
Elwood police Chief Fred Hayes said he asked for the team’s assistance to make sure the protest didn’t escalate.
“Police officers always have to prepare for the worst thing that could possibly happen,” he said.
Among those arrested were Will County Board member Jackie Traynere, the Rev. Craig Purchase of Mount Zion Tabernacle Church in Joliet, the Rev. Raymond Lescher of Sacred Heart Church in Joliet and Charlotte Droogan, lay minister at Universalist Unitarian Church of Joliet.
Each arrested protester would be cited for obstructing a roadway, Hayes said.
“It’s very similar to receiving a speeding ticket,” he said.
The protest was an escalation of three years of work by WWJ to improve conditions for warehouse workers in Will County, which with its two intermodals has become the largest inland port in North America in recent years.
The group has helped workers file 11 lawsuits against the companies that own, manage or staff warehouses. Six of the lawsuits are against companies hired by Walmart to run its warehouse. By the end of the year, several of the lawsuits will settle for about $1 million in back pay, said Leah Fried, a WWJ spokeswoman.
Walmart has been targeted more and more in recent months by the group because “They are the worst of the worst,” said WWJ community organizer Cindy Marble.
Workers complain that they’re paid “poverty wages,” they aren’t paid overtime, they’re kept as temporary workers for years, they face sexual harassment and racial discrimination and they have to work in extreme heat and cold.
Mike Compton, one of the striking warehouse workers who walked off the job, said after working at the warehouse for three months, he was a veteran worker because the turnover is so high. He said everyone quits because “They call us bodies and that’s what we feel like.”
Fellow striker Curtis Tucker said because he’s a big guy, bosses expected him to unload trailers that were marked “team lift” by himself.
Walmart officials deny the accusations and they say it is WWJ, which was founded with help from the United Electrical Radio and Machine Workers, that is treating warehouse workers poorly.
“This isn’t really about Walmart at all,” said company spokesman Dan Fogleman. “... The union is focused on fulfilling its own agenda.”
WWJ is a “union-funded, union-backed” organization that wants more union members who pay dues that can be used by union bosses on their political agenda, Fogleman said.
“In the end, their efforts don’t reflect a genuine concern for the needs of the workers they are putting in the public spotlight,” he said.
WWJ’s Fried disputed Fogleman’s claim. She said WWJ is 95 percent funded by foundations and donations. The union is supporting the group, but so are many others, she said.
“It’s so incredible that his response for people not getting paid for heavy, difficult labor is to say it’s just a union-backed thing,” she said. “They feel it’s somehow OK for this to go on in their warehouses.”
During the rally, union officials were open about their hopes of organizing the warehouse workers, but they said it was to improve working conditions.
“We stand behind you,” said Bob Kingsley a union director.
Walmart manages and staffs more than 100 of its warehouses around the country, but it farms out management at about 25 larger regional distribution centers such as the one in Elwood, Fogleman said.
Walmart hired Schneider National Inc. to manage its warehouse in Elwood; Schneider hired Roadlink Workforce Solutions to staff the warehouse. On Sept. 13, two days before the strike began, workers filed a federal lawsuit charging Roadlink with wage theft and other labor infractions.
Schneider officials said they expect third-party vendors to comply with all laws. Roadlink officials had no comment on the lawsuit or Monday’s rally.
Walmart’s Fogleman said company executives toured the Elwood warehouse in September.
“We believe the issues that have been raised were either unfounded, or, if legitimate have been addressed,” he said.
The company is reviewing its contracts with third-party logistics companies to make sure they abide by all health and safety regulations, he said.
WWJ and its supporters aren’t convinced. As the last protesters were led away by police at about 4:15 p.m., more than two hours after the rally started, the group chanted, “We’ll be back, we’ll be back.”