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Walkouts at Wal-Mart

An unprecedent rolling strike wave hitting Wal-Marts across the country – started in September by warehouse workers in northern Illinois and southern California – will include walkouts by employees at a number of Chicago-area Wal-Marts on “Black Friday” this week, organizers say.

Meanwhile organizers working with temporary staffing agency workers charge Wal-Mart is evading the wage commitment it made when it entered Chicago two years ago by using temps to fill positions in its stores here.  Chicago Workers Collaborative is backing staffing workers in Wal-Mart stores who recently filed a wage theft lawsuit against the company.

Wal-Mart employees who will be striking on Friday will speak at rallies on Wednesday, November 21, from 5 to 8 p.m. at two Chicago Wal-Marts, 570 W. Monroe and 3630 N. Broadway.

Backed by labor and community supporters, Wal-Mart associates will walk out at a number of stores in the area on Friday.  Details aren’t available, but media contact information is hereChicago Jobs With Justice is also organizing support

Small one-day strikes started last week at two California Wal-Marts, with workers later walking out at two stores in Dallas and six in Seattle.

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“It’s time for us to speak out,” said Tyrone Robinson, an associate at a Chicago Wal-Mart.  “If we don’t speak out, things are just going to stay the same.”

Robinson is a member of OUR Wal-Mart (Organization United for Respect at Wal-Mart), a nonunion association which has been joined by thousands of Wal-Mart associates in the past year.

“Wal-Mart is the largest retailer in the world,” Robinson said.  “They could afford to give us decent wages and health insurance and better hours.  They just choose not to.”

One major complaint is the company’s practice of cutting associates’ hours.  Robinson says he was working 40-hour weeks when he started at Wal-Mart a year ago, but since then his hours have been “drastically reduced.”

“I was doing fine,” he said.  “I had a 40-hour week and I was able to keep my own apartment.  I was on my way to getting some kind of vehicle.”  He takes public transit and often has to be at work at 3 a.m.

But since since his hours were cut, “I had to move in with my grandmother,” he said.  “Now I have a two-hour commute.”

There are other immediate concerns.  The company is increasing health premiums by as much as 36 percent following another steep increase last year, and has raised the number of hours needed to qualify for health coverage from 24 to 30 a week.

And after opening for the first time on Thanksgiving evening last year, this year they’re moving the opening time two hours earlier, to 8 p.m.  That’s not welcomed by associates who have to be at the store hours earlier, said Marc Goumbri, a local organizer for OUR Wal-Mart.

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Walmart warehouse workers strike

Workers at a Walmart distribution center near Joliet went on strike Saturday to protest what they say is illegal retaliation.

According to a release from Warehouse Workers for Justice, they’re protesting intimidation and retaliation following the filing of a federal lawsuit charging violation of wage laws earlier this week.

On Thursday, workers at Walmart’s huge warehouse complex in Elwood, Illinois, filed suit against Walmart contractor Roadlink Workforce Solutions alleging they hadn’t been paid for all hours worked, hadn’t been paid for overtime, and in some cases were paid less than minimum wage, according to their attorney, Chris Williams of the Workers’ Law Office.

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More wage-theft charges at Wal-Mart warehouse

A fourth lawsuit alleging wage theft at a Wal-Mart warehouse in Will County was filed in federal court November 18.

Workers hired by Eclipse Advantage to staff Wal-Mart’s warehouse in Ellwood, Illinois, charge they were paid less than minimum wage or shorted on their hours – and in some cases both.

“I worked 21 hours for Eclipse my first week and was paid $57 for it,” said Roberto Gutierrez.  “The company says I only worked 12 hours, by even by their logic I was still paid less than minimum wage.

Warehouse Workers for Justice led dozens of warehouse workers who demonstrated at the Wal-Mart warehouse Monday, demanding that payment records be released.

The suit is the fourth filed by WWJ on behalf of Wal-mart warehouse workers since 2009.  The other suits are pending.

“We’ve seen a spike” of wage theft complaints during the pre-holiday season peak this year, said Mark Meinster of WWJ.

In recent months, California state labor investigators have fined two Wal-Mart contractors over $1 million for violations there, he said.

Working at the car wash — for tips

Last year we wrote about wage theft at car washes – “it’s almost an industry standard,” one labor advocate said – as an example of the many ways we unknowingly encounter the phenomenon of wage theft in our daily lives.

On Tuesday, clergy and community supporters will visit a car wash owner on behalf of a former employee who says that he was paid only in tips.

Arise Chicago workers center has made numerous attempts to meet with the business owner.  Tuesday at 3:15 p.m. they will hold a press conference in a nearby parking lot at 2551 W. Cermak and then try to meet with the boss.

Workers mobilize on wage theft law

Low-wage workers will be trained in the state’s tough new anti-wage theft law – and workers with their own cases will file claims – at a training Saturday.

Sponsored by the Just Pay For All Coalition for worker leaders from the Centro de Trabajadores Unidos of South Chicago, Chicago Workers’ Collaborative  and Latino Union of Chicago, the training takes place at 10 a.m., Saturday, July 9 at CWC’s Chicago office, 5014 S. Ashland.

Joe Costigan, the new director of the Illinois Department of Labor, will discuss implementation of the law, and training will be conducted by staff from the Working Hands Legal Clinic, which drafted the law.

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O’Hare workers paid below minimum

Clergy with Arise Chicago will hold a prayer vigil at O’Hare Airport tomorrow morning, calling on Prospect Airport Services to stop paying below-minimum wages to workers who provide wheelchair assistance to elderly and disabled passengers.

The prayer vigil – 10:30 a.m. on Wednesday, June 1, at O’Hare’s Terminal 2 (near entrance 2A) – follows a meeting with a company representative last week, said Rev. C.J. Hawking of Arise Chicago.

Passenger service agents earning minimum wage have $1.75 an hour deducted from their paychecks to cover expected tips – more during “peak times” including holiday and vacation seasons, organizers say.  That means they’re getting paid from $5 to $6.50 an hour.

But tips aren’t common, in part because passengers are told it’s a free service – and workers are prohibited from soliciting tips, organizers say.

They say the company makes no effort to ensure that it is abiding by the state’s tipped minimum wage law, which requires that companies paying a below-minimum wage to tipped employees make up the difference if compensation falls below the standard minimum wage.

Employees of Prospect are working with SEIU Local 1 to win union representation.  Prospect employs about 1,000 passenger service agents, exit guards, lobby agents, cabin cleaners, sky caps and ramp support workers at O’Hare and Midway.

Along with economic issues, they have safety concerns with maintenance of the equipment and with the risks associated with maneuvering multiple wheelchairs at once, according to the union.

Clergy from the Mount Prospect area met last week with an attorney for the company, who maintained that the company’s practice is legal, Hawking said.

“We argued that there’s a moral dimension that they should look at as well,” she said.  “These workers are not able to take care of their families on subpar wages, and they have no health care for themselves and their families.  We think that’s just not right for a company that has contracts at airports across the country.”

“These workers have earned the public trust to take care of some of our most vulnerable members of society,” Hawking said.  “We do question whether some company executives have earned the public trust.”

Wal-Mart’s low wages – from Bangladesh to Joliet

What kind of jobs would Wal-Mart bring to Chicago?  A “Workers Truth Tour” will bring together garment workers from Bangladesh, a Walmart associate from Maryland, and a warehouse worker from Joliet to give a preview, based on jobs now existing in the world of Wal-Mart.

The event takes place Monday, March 28 at 4:30 p.m. at Roosevelt University, 18 S. Michigan.

The experiences of Monday’s speakers don’t paint a bright picture for prospective Wal-Mart employees.  They range from below-minimum wage pay at Wal-Mart’s biggest U.S. warehouse, located in Elwood near Joliet, to the false imprisonment and torture of one of Bangladesh’s leading workers rights crusaders.

“We want to show how the workers at every point of Wal-Mart’s supply line are making poverty wages, and how Wal-Mart continues to violate labor law around the world in order to increase their profits,” said Moises Zavala of United Food and Commercial Workers Local 881, which is sponsoring the event.

The speakers include Kalpona Akter, who helped found the Bangladesh Center for Worker Solidarity after being fired and blacklisted for trying to organize a union at a sweatshop factory; she started working in garment factories at the age of 12, working 14-hour days for $6 a month.   She’s mobilizing the nation’s 3.5 million sweatshop workers, mostly young women, to win a 41-cents-an-hour minimum wage.

Last year Wal-Mart’s subcontractor filed a false criminal complaint against Akter, resulting in her being jailed for 30 days and tortured, according to UFCW.

Kalpona Akter will be joined by Aleya Akter, a sewing machine operator at a Bangladesh factory that supplies apparel to Wal-Mart; Aleya began working in a garment factory in 1994 at the age of 9.

Also speaking will by Cynthia Murray, a former steelworker who’s worked as an associate in a Wal-Mart store in Maryland since 2000, and Robert Hines, a leader of Warehouse Workers for Justice.

Hines is one of a group of warehouse workers that has charged the Reliable Staffing agency with paying below-minimum wages at a Wal-Mart’s warehouse in Elwood, Illinois.  Leading up to Christmas last year, he and others were working 12- to 15-hour days but were paid by the piece – according to how many shipping containers they unloaded – and their pay was below the legal minimum, according to WWJ.

After repeatedly requesting full compensation, he and his fellow workers were laid off in December.  In February they filed suit, charging that Reliable had failed to provide required payment records and that the company owes them thousands of dollars in back wages.  They’re represented by the Working Hands Legal Clinic.

Reliable is one of a number of staffing agencies providing workers for Wal-Mart’s Elwood warehouse, where shipping containers originating in China are unloaded and products are redirected to stores around the Midwest.   In December 2009 workers at the same warehouse hired through Select Remedies charged that agency was splitting paychecks in order to avoid paying overtime.  Their lawsuit is pending.

Day laborers mark Human Rights Day

Day laborers will host their supporters, including elected officials and allies from labor, faith, and community organizations, at a celebration on International Human Rights Day marking the tenth anniversary of the Latino Union – and the release of a new report on “excluded workers.”

The tenth anniversary fundraiser takes place tonight, Friday, December 10, from 7 to 10 p.m. at the National Museum of Mexican Art, 1852 W. 19th Street.

Latino Union organizes low-income immigrant workers, including day laborers in communities like Pilsen and Albany Park.

The unemployment crisis has exacerbated longstanding problems including wage theft and unsafe working conditions and “forced us to find new solutions,” said Jose Luis Guillardo, a Latino Union leader.

“We are very fortunate to have such a strong network of people that believe in workers rights as human rights,” said Patricio Ordonez, a day laborer who coordinates the Albany Park Worker Center.  “This is the product of ten years of organizing.”

The new report (pdf) comes from the Excluded Workers Congress, which the Latino Union helped found in June.  The group brings together organizations working across the nation with workers excluded from legal protections for organizing and collective bargaining, as well as minimum wage and health and safety standards.

That includes millions of workers, according to the report, including 1.5 million farmworkers, 2 million domestic workers, and 3 million tipped workers.  The report describes conditions, provides individual stories, and relates successful organizing campaigns in nine sectors, including day laborers, guest workers, workfare workers, taxi drivers, restaurant workers, and the formerly incarcerated.

The exclusion of sectors of the workforce from labor rights has its roots in slavery and racism, the report argues.  And it denies workers rights guaranteed under the UN Declaration of Human Rights, including “the most basic right: the right to organize.”

EWC is backing legislation that would bar employers from using immigration enforcement to undercut organizing efforts, and calling for a minimum wage that keeps pace with inflation.



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