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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.

Coal ash in Lake Michigan, and more

The Sierra Club reports that toxic coal ash is being dumped into Lake Michigan after a retaining bluff collapsed at a power plant in Wisconsin.  Coal ash contains a variety of toxic substances, depending on the type of coal used, including arsenic, lead, mercury, dioxins, carcinogens and mutagens.  The U.S. Senate is considering a bill passed by the House to block the EPA from cracking down on coal ash in the water supply.

Peoples World profiles Jane Edburg, lead organizer at the South Halsted Unemployed Action Center.  Not previously an activist, Edburg became involved when she lost her shipping clerk position with a Chicago photo lab manufacturer after 32 years with the company – and after losing her unemployment benefits after 99 weeks, while sending out hundreds of resumes and job applications.

The center helps unemployed workers apply for jobs and benefits – and pushes elected officials for action on the jobs crisis.

Wal-Mart marches on in Chicago, but the company’s critics remain, reports Kari Lydersen at Working In These Times.  They say that despite recent p.r. victories, the corporation’s latest move dropping health coverage for part-time workers and increasing premiums shows that Wal-Mart is still “a cut-throat company” that drives down the standard of living.

Finally, a downstate blog posts the Notice of Eviction that Occupy Springfield served on lobbyists in the state capitol.  Great photos, too.

Facing death penalty, garment worker addresses Wal-Mart

A labor organizer from Bangladesh who spoke in Chicago earlier this year – and who faces charges carrying the death penalty for her efforts to improve garment workers’ conditions – will speak to Wal-Mart’s annual shareholders meeting today in Fayetteville, Arkansas.

Kalpona Akter will speak on behalf of New York City pension funds, which have introduced a resolution calling on Wal-Mart to report annually on working conditions in their factories.  Wal-Mart is opposing the resolution, according to the New York Times.

Following massive and turbulent demonstrations last year by Bengladeshi garment workers protesting a minimum wage hike (to $43 a month) which they consider inadequate, Akter and two colleagues from the Begladesh Center for Wroker Solidarity were charged with inciting violence.

They had conducted “courtyard meetings” on workers rights for employees of several factories.  Supporters say they were not present during the incidents of vandalism which underlie the charges.  During one incident, Akter was meeting with the chair of the Parliament’s labor committee, they say.

Two major factory groups which supply Wal-Mart and other U.S. corporations – including the Nassa Group, Wal-Mart’s single largest supplier — filed charges against the organizers.  Other charges filed by the government include violation of the Explosives Substances Act, which carries a possible death penalty.

Sweat Free Communities, a project of the International Labor Rights Forum, has been demanding that the charges be dropped.  Last year 18 members of Congress, including Jan Schakowsky (D-Evanston) called on the CEOs of Wal-Mart and other corporations to suspend business with  Nassa and the Envoy Group until charges are dropped.  Amnesty Internation, Human Rights Watch, and the AFL-CIO have also expressed concern.

In March, Akter spoke in Chicago with a Wal-Mart associate from Maryland and a local warehouse worker.  As Newstips reported, the American workers said they were shocked to learn of conditions in Bangladesh.

Akter began working in garment factories at the age of 12, earning $10 a month, and working shifts of 14 hours or more.

Development 101: Giordanos, Oreos — and Wal-Mart

People used to get confused when Jim Capraro would deny that a new supermarket in a blighted community — which he’d worked years to open — was a win for economic development. Read the rest of this entry »

A Triangle Fire every year

Kari Lydersen reports at Working In These Times on the Wal-Mart Workers Truth Tour featuring workers from the U.S. and Bangladesh, which was previewed here.

Robert Hodge, a leader of Warehouse Workers for Justice, described a class action lawsuit for wage theft at a huge Wal-Mart warehouse outside Joliet, and Cynthia Murray of Laurel, Maryland, talked about being unable to afford health care after 11 years as a Wal-Mart associate there.

Both said they were shocked to learn of conditions in Bangladesh, where garment workers recently won a minimum wage increase to $43 a month.  Labor rights activists call that a “malnutrition wage.”

It’s country where labor organizing its violently suppressed and working conditions result in hundreds of deaths in workplace explosions and fires every year, according to a report by SweatFree Communities.  Noting the 100th anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire in New York City, Kalpona Akter said, “In Bangladesh, we have one or two Triangle Fires every year.”

At the height of the campaign for a minimum wage hike last year, Akter was arrested and charged with inciting worker unrest. Some charges she faces are punishable by the death penalty or by life imprisonment, she said.

Her arrest has been protested by Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International.  Nineteen members of Congress, including Rep. Jan Schakowsky and then-Rep. Phil Hare,  called on Wal-Mart and five other companies doing business in Bangladesh to demand the charges be dropped.  Some charges have been filed by Bangladesh factory groups, including Nassa Group, Wal-Mart’s top supplier.

Progress Illinois has video of Akter, Hodge, and Murray.

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.

Company store: Pullman to Wal-Mart

Wal-Mart’s effort to move into Pullman invites a comparison of the 21st century company store with the 19th century version.

“The parallels are almost too obvious too mention,” said Jeff Helgeson, a Pullman resident who teaches labor studies at the University of Illinois-Chicago.  “There’s a sense in which [Wal-Mart] is very much like the model community of Pullman.”

Built by George Pullman as a planned community for workers at his railroad car plant, the town of Pullman was “celebrated internationally as a utopia,” but “within 15 years was the scene of one of the largest labor strikes in U.S. history,” Helgeson said.  He’s one of a group of neighborhood residents who’ve organized Labor Day celebrations to mark Pullman’s history.

Like Wal-Mart, the Pullman Company paid lower wages than other employers. (In 2004 a University of California-Berkeley study found Wal-Mart’s wages for non-managerial employees were 31 percent lower than the average retail wage; Chicago’s Center for Labor and Community Research estimated that Wal-Mart wages were $2 to $3 below those of its competitors.)

Both companies banned trade unions.  Both companies are known for spying on their workers to prevent any stirrings of organization.

The Pullman Company also owned every home, every store, every school, and every church in the town – even the town library – until the Illinois Supreme Court ordered the sale of all non-manufacturing property in 1898, ruling that company towns are “opposed to good public policy and incompatible with the theory and spirit of our institutions.”

A low-income cycle

Wal-Mart has commonly been called a “company store” because, in economist R.J. Eskow’s words at Huffington Post, “Wal-Mart lowers your living standards then sells you cheap goods that are all you can afford.”

“Wal-Mart has created and perpetuated a low-income cycle of worker/consumer,” said Al Norman of Wal-Mart Watch in an interview with Grist.  “Wal-Mart’s 1.5 million workers have to shop at the company store because they can’t afford to shop elsewhere. It’s a great closed-loop system, akin to a plantation where the field workers went to the company store with their day’s wages.”

“In a chilling reversal of Henry Ford’s strategy, which was to pay his workers amply so they could buy Ford cars, Wal-Mart’s stingy compensation policies…contribute to an economy in which, increasingly, workers can only afford to shop at Wal-Mart,” wrote Liz Featherstone in the Nation in 2004.

A couple years later Barbara Ehrenreich wrote of “signs… that Wal-Mart was beginning to be priced out of the reach of its own employees.”  Workers getting $8 or $9 an hour buy their clothes at thrift stores, she pointed out, and the store’s electronics and lawn and garden products “weren’t even on the distant horizon.”

In at least one other country, an old-school solution was attempted – company scrip.  But in September 2008, the Mexican Supreme Court ordered Wal-Mart’s Mexican subsidiary to stop paying its employees in vouchers redeemable only at Wal-Marts.  (The company called the program its “Social Welfare Plan,” according to one report.)

The court held that the practice was “similar to what happened in old company stores” that were outlawed by the constitution of 1917, Reuters reported.

Food stamps: a double boost

Another approach may be on view in Wal-Mart’s store on Chicago’s West Side.  Employees there interviewed by Chicagoist said “the company purposely cut worker’s hours [so they] can remain eligible for the Link Card,” the state’s food assistance program.

“There’s a lot of workers on Link,” says one employee, and when workers’ hours are cut, their Link Card allocation goes up.  And “shoppers that use their Link card at Wal-Mart include many Wal-Mart employees,” according to Chicagoist.

The use of public assistance programs like food stamps and Medicaid by underpaid Wal-Mart employees has long been an issue.  In 2004 California Assemblywoman Sally Lieber released Wal-Mart’s “Instructions to Employees” telling them how to sign up for food stamps and health assistance.  “Public assistance is very clearly part of the retailer’s cost-cutting strategy,” Featherstone wrote.

But with Wal-Mart supercenters now selling food – and accepting Link Cards – the company gets a double boost to its bottom line.

The old company store merely recouped the wages the employer had paid out.  In this innovative twist, the money paid by taxpayers to supplement Wal-Mart’s low wages can now be spent at Wal-Mart, contributing even further to the Walton family’s riches.

It gives an entirely new meaning to the term “corporate welfare.”

Pullman split on Wal-Mart

With a proposed Wal-Mart in Pullman on the agenda for Wednesday’s zoning committee meeting, public opinion in the community remains divided, as an unsuccessful effort to  win an endorsement by the Pullman Civic Organization shows.

It was only a week and a half ago, at a meeting of the civic group, that residents learned that Wal-Mart has signed a tentative agreement to anchor Pullman Park, a massive development project south of 104th Street and west of the Bishop Ford Expressway.

At the end of a long meeting, a vote in favor of the project was moved, but Wal-Mart skeptics won a vote to postpone a decision.

Buses are being provided for residents who support the Wal-Mart to come downtown for the zoning meeting en masse.

But some Pullman residents are asking how well the project has been marketed to other retailers, why economic development assistance isn’t flowing to small businesses in the area, and whether the rush to close a deal will foreclose an opportunity to impact Wal-Mart’s employment policies.

“They say nobody else is going to come but Wal-Mart, and we’d better take it or we won’t get anything,” said longtime Pullman resident Tom Shepherd.  “Why don’t we try a little harder?”

Developers have said that Jewel, Dominick’s, Target, Costco, and Ikea have turned down the spot.  But spokespersons for several of the companies told the Chicago Reader last week that they hadn’t been contacted.

David Doig of the Chicago Neighborhood Initiative told the Reader he’d worked through brokers, though reports on those contacts weren’t provided.  Alderman Anthony Beale told the Reader that he’d contacted retailers about a development at 115th and Michigan and assumed that if they turned that down, they wouldn’t be interested in Pullman Park.

Resident Ellen Garza would prefer to patronize small businesses, and thinks economic development should support that sector.  “Beale has done nothing for small business,” she said, mentioning commercial strips along 115th and 111th where “small businesses are limping along.”

“Where’s the economic development that would promote them and help them grow?” she asks, arguing that “small businesses help the community, make the community richer.” [Newstips explored this issue in 2006.]

Garza objects to the argument that any job is a good job, especially in economically-depressed minority areas. “Why are African Americans always treated like second-class citizens?” she asked.  “They don’t need unions, they don’t need a living wage, they don’t need benefits – it’s racist.”

“I think it’s a terrible idea to have a Wal-Mart in our neighborhood,” she said, calling the company “the worst employer on the face of the earth.”

Another resident, Jeff Helgeson, says Chicago has an opportunity to influence Wal-Mart. The company is “not a lost cause,” he said.  “They have changed – they stopped locking employees in their stores overnight, for example – and they did that in response to public pressure.”

“If they want to come into this market, they need to be kept to Chicago standards, not bring Chicago down to the level of other places,” he adds.  He’s afraid that “we might be giving in at a moment when we have some leverage.”

It’s been a long haul for the Pullman Park proposal since Park National Bank acquired the old Ryerson Steel site for $24 million in 2008.  A series of meetings seeking community input for development plans were held; PNB talked about building 1,000 single-family homes in keeping with the architecture of the Pullman Historic District, along with big box and smaller retail, a hotel, senior housing and a community center.

But the bank was seized by the FDIC last October and sold off to U.S. Bank, the nation’s sixth largest bank.  Not until this March did U.S. Bank announce that the PNB’s development efforts would be spun off in the Chicago Neighborhood Initiative.

“Park National Bank was really responsive to the community,” says Helgeson. “They were trying to do it without going to Wal-Mart. When U.S. Bank came in, suddenly Wal-Mart is the only option.”

Also subject to change is the financing of the project.  Before U.S. Bank and Wal-Mart, city financing through a new TIF zone passed last summer was said to be crucial to the feasibility of the project.  Now, according to residents who attended the presentation at the PCO meeting, developers say that phase one of the project – building the Wal-Mart store – will only use private funds.

This could avoid getting the project tangled up in the Finance Committee – or, perhaps, coming under the sway of a proposed ordinance that would require that beneficiaries of city subsidies pay a living wage.  Wal-Mart has consistently rejected such a requirement.

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