Category Archives: Labor Organizing

Warehouse and Distribution Work, Tough Times at the Choke Points

New Orleans        In the modern economy, warehouse, distribution, and logistical work has become critical for both big box stores, e-commerce, and transportation systems moving goods between all of these nodes and customers.  Some 1.2 million workers are directly employed in this sector now according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Fifteen years ago, when we were running an organizing campaign around Walmart with its workers, we tried to both encourage unionization among warehouse workers and prevent construction of new warehouses to pressure the company.  They had more than twenty different types of warehouses depending on the goods and locations.  Now Amazon in its dominance of e-commerce has millions of square feet of warehouse space.  UPS, FedEx, and don’t forget the US Postal Service have massive computer driven and robot staffed distribution operations to link those systems with transportation by air and land.  Walmart and Amazon trucks are also everywhere.

Organizers have long theorized that these warehouse and distribution centers are choke-points in the economy that might offer leverage to workers organizing.  Reading case studies on these efforts in Choke Points:  Logistic Workers Disrupting the Global Supply Chain, edited by Jake Alimahomed-Wilson and Emmanuel Ness, it was hard to feel encouraged despite the valiant efforts of workers in a number of countries, victories have been hard to win and even harder to sustain.  All of this despite the well-reported abysmal condition of the workforce in these locations both here and abroad.

Talking to Mostafa Henaway, the lead organizer of the Immigrant Workers Centre in Montreal on Wade’s World, about the recent report their organization had done on the condition of workers in this industry there, reinforced the difficult situation of these workers.  This is a significant employer in Quebec.  Dollarama, the Walmart-wannabe there, has six warehouses with 20,000 workers.  One of the common issues throughout North America is the number of temporary workers in these facilities frequently surpasses the complement of regular employees.  The IWC estimates there are 63,000 temporary workers in Montreal area in warehouses with a disproportionate number of refugee workers in the equivalent of the HI-B program in the US, except that the employer has more control including holding the visa, making advocacy and organizing even more difficult for such precarious workers.  Sectoral bargaining is allowed in many occupations that can assure minimum wages and the payment of health and social security benefits, and IWC sees this as the best policy solution. The IWC report has gotten wide publicity and is featured in the coming issue of the journal Social Policy, so they are hoping that momentum will build for reform.

In the US, the Imperial Valley of California outside of Los Angeles has been ground zero for the last fifteen years for warehouse and distribution development and worker organizing.  The Warehouse Workers Center has become the key advocacy organization, emerging from the organizing efforts developed by the Change to Win Federation and SEIU, and has faced the same challenges.  Nonetheless, there’s too much kindling to prevent workers getting fired up and making something happen as this sector continues to grow in our economy.

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Google Decides to “Do Evil” to its Workers

New Orleans      Remember back in the old days, which might have only been a few years ago, but certainly seems so twentieth century now, when it seemed OK that Google was the go-to search engine for most everyone, the mail service for billions, map reader for the masses, and so much more?  Sure, you do.  There motto then was “do no evil.”  What a hoot!  That was so before the principals were gazillionaires and could hide their libertarianism that values all things individual over anything collective from governments down to the regular folks on the street.

With a workforce of 100,000 direct employees around the world and 100,000 or more contractors, this “do no evil” thing is officially over when it comes to their own folks much less the rest of us.  Time to tighten the screws!  Reports are out now that among their many contracts their human relations folks have hired IRI Consultants, a notorious union buster, to give them advice on how and where to put their boot on their employees’ necks.   I know IRI well enough.  They were a household word for SEIU organizers in the twenty-five years, Local 100 was affiliated there, just as SEIU is a household word for them on their websites as they tout efforts to thwart the Service Employees hospital organizing drives.  One of the few listservs I still get is a regular alert and spreadsheet on “Union Busters,” since they are required to file with reports on their activity though most, like IRI Consultants, do their dirty work in secret.

The dissembling by Google over IRI’s work for them is a piece of the same cloth, though many of their recent actions, as reported by their workers, smell like them.  Google has been moving to close down its more open culture of employee outlets for wide ranging comments.  The company now wants to know about any meeting of 100 or more workers or requests for ten or more rooms.  Weekly all-hands meetings are now monthly and only vetted topics allowed.

Google is reacting to a growing feistiness by its workforce.  A relatively small walkout freaked them out.  A petition against Google contracting with the US Customs and Border Protection agency was a pimple on management’s butt.  There is no real threat of a union organizing drive across the company, but this whole legally protected concerted activity thing under US labor law is chafing them as well.

The attempts by the National Labor Relations Board to now curtail what they are willing to protect as concerted activity on company email servers is undoubtedly a flashing neon light for Google and its buster-buddies to try to suffocate their workers communicating with each other about Google, their work, and their grievances.  Recently, the EEOC has partially kept the door open to protect workers when they are communicating collectively by email about sexual harassment, but the retreat of the NLRB is significant.  California labor law may protect some Google workers based around headquarters, but all of the signs are bad as the company begins cracking down harder.

“Do no evil” was a good early recruitment tool for Google and pretty good marketing for the rest of us, but the new Google practices are less about changing or doing good in the world and more about holding onto every penny along the way.  “Do evil” or whatever it takes to your workers is standard operating procedure for mega-companies, so put Google on that list as the same as the rest and far from the best.

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