By Stephen Lee
The Southern California warehouse workers who went on strike to protest unsafe conditions at a Jurupa Valley Wal-Mart facility returned to work Sept. 27, having extracted a promise from the company that it will begin randomly inspecting its contractors’ safety performance.
Wal-Mart spokesman Dan Fogleman told BNA Oct. 2 that the company has begun developing a plan for random safety inspections of the company’s contract employers, performed by an independent third party, to ensure compliance with Wal-Mart’s own standards and the law.
The warehouse is owned and operated by NFI Industries, and the workers are temporary employees provided by Warestaff, a staffing agency. Both companies are under contract with Wal-Mart.
Some three dozen workers went on strike Sept. 12, protesting a range of alleged unsafe conditions, including overly hot temperatures in the warehouse, dangerously malfunctioning or broken equipment, mandatory high-speed forklift driving in order to meet production goals, and a thick dust that workers said caused them to cough up blood, have nosebleeds, and vomit (42 OSHR 817, 9/13/12).
Conditions Have Improved.
The day after the workers returned to their shifts, some of them complained that ramps were still broken, posing trip and fall hazards, said Elizabeth Brennan, a spokeswoman for Warehouse Workers United, which has been assisting the striking workers. NFI supervisors quickly shut down the ramps.
‘‘So they felt like that’s good,’’ Brennan told BNA Oct. 1. ‘‘They feel more freedom to actually speak up.’’
Kathleen Hessert, an NFI spokeswoman, told BNA Oct. 1 that Warehouse Workers United has been ‘‘harrassing’’ NFI in an attempt to target Wal-Mart.
Hessert also said she had toured the Jurupa Valley facility and was ‘‘amazed at the distortions’’ in how the workers had portrayed the working conditions.
‘‘In the break room there were all kinds of free Gatorade, all kinds of ice, all kinds of things for drinking,’’ Hessert said.
She also said she saw vending machines available for the workers, equipment that appeared to be in good condition, and several signs and banners advising the workers to drive their forklifts safely and within speed limits.
‘‘The picture that has been painted and what I saw [were] totally different,’’ Hessert said.
Similarly, Wal-Mart’s Fogleman said company executives had recently toured many of its contract warehouses, including the Jurupa Valley facility, and found that the working environments were ‘‘fairly standard’’ warehouses with no imminently dangerous hazards.
‘‘This isn’t about Wal-Mart at all,’’ Fogleman said. ‘‘This is about the unions and their own agenda, and how they’re advancing it. Their focus is on getting more members to join the union, and getting that additional revenue stream into their coffers.’’
Union Rep Defends Action.
Brennan acknowledged that WWU is funded by the Change to Win labor federation.
‘‘We make no mystery of that,’’ Brennan said.
She also said unions are necessary in the warehousing sector because in Southern California, as well as in states like Illinois and New Jersey, the industry has been designed to put workers at a disadvantage.
She described the warehouse system as one of contractors and subcontractors in which employers can easily drop a contractor because they use temporary workers and do not have any obligation to bring them back.
‘‘At this point, our focus has been on trying to make sure health and safety standards are upheld at the warehouses and create humane jobs, but to say that people would be better off with a union—we all agree with that,’’ Brennan said. ‘‘There aren’t many union jobs that are temporary, that pay $8 an hour, where you’re nearly assured you’ll be injured on the job.’’
Safety Concerns Are Real, WWU Says.
Brennan also said the claims of unsafe conditions are legitimate.
‘‘It’s to be expected that [NFI and Wal-Mart] are trying to dismiss workers’ claims,’’ she said. ‘‘But dozens of workers are talking about the issues they’re worried about every day.’’
On July 18, a group of 17 workers filed a complaint with the state Division of Occupational Safety and Health (42 OSHR 649, 7/19/12).
Brennan said WWU is indeed targeting Wal-Mart, but only because the retail giant ‘‘sets the standard for the logistics industry. It’s important that their contractors follow the law, and it’s important to understand their power. They’re enormous, and they’re important not only in retail but also logistics.’’
BY STEPHEN LEE