Tag Archives: california

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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Tax Subsidy Opposition and Community Benefits are Battling in California

San Francisco     The Inland Empire is largely Riverside and San Bernardino Counties in southern California east of Los Angeles.  Warehouses and distribution centers are the kings of this empire, workers and communities are too often the serfs and poor villagers.  In the last decade since the Great Recession new work in this section brought in 84,000 jobs, nearly a quarter of the region’s employment, averaging a little more than $15 per hour for a workforce population where 45% have no more than a high school education.  Amazon with a dozen warehouses in the area now is the largest Inland employer.

A community fight has now become public over a proposal to build a $200 million air cargo facility that claims it would eventually create 3800 jobs and deliver $6.5 million in revenue for a public airport on the repurposed site of a former Air Force base.  What’s the rub?  Community organizations such as Inland Congregations United for Change, part of the Faith in Action network (formerly PICO), want the guarantee of a community benefit agreement. Unions, like the Teamsters who represent many warehouse workers, want organizing neutrality to prevent wage erosion for their members.  Many elected officials want transparency on the incentive deals and negotiations for the highly secretive companies, including Amazon notorious for its additional headquarters search and its efforts to extract billions in tax breaks from New York City, and Google which has done the same for its server farms in scores of secretive deals around the country.

An article in the San Francisco Chronicle made it clear that despite all of the claims by the economic development and local officials, the community and unions are not opposing the project, but they are clear that they want real guarantees on job quality and community benefits, none of which are being assured them at this point.  State legislators have proposed bills on a variety of these matters.  One measure that has passed the state Assembly and is pending before the Senate would require any warehouse receiving more than $100,000 from local governments to at least be transparent about the number of jobs, wages, and other employment plans.  Another also moving forward would mandate public hearings annually on such incentive deals and whether or not they really deliver and, importantly, demand clawbacks if the job development and similar commitments are not fulfilled.  Similar bills were vetoed by former government Jerry Brown, but may have a better chance now in the changing environment on tax giveaways without any accountability.

Another issue, similar to the one where ACORN and our Walmart organizing project worked with the Teamsters and others in trying to win accountability in Merced, California when a huge Walmart distribution center was being built, is the environmental impact of thousands of diesel trucks coming through and polluting lower income neighborhoods, and in that case students at the new university location in Merced.  Similar concerns are being raised here about “diesel death traps,” and part of the controversy has been the quiet around the environmental impact statement done and released without any local attention in order to avoid public participation.

These fights are breaking out all over the country exploding the economic development hype about “low road” projects without community and worker benefit agreements.  Add the Inland Empire to any list of these battlegrounds, since warehouse and distribution centers are now front and center in the dispute.

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