Well paid teachers who receive generous benefits are on strike in Chicago and reminding Walmart why organized labor is a bigger threat to its business than any competitor.
The striking teachers are squabbling with the school district for double digit pay increases and protection against layoffs while resisting efforts for a slightly longer school days and compensation programs based on student performance. At least that’s how it seems based on national media reports of the weeklong strike which tend to focus more on the political drama associated with the dispute than the actual worker demands or the city’s financial constraints and huge pension obligations. The teachers surely have some legitimate concerns, but this week they tended to come across as greedy, selfish and out of touch with private sector workers.
Union’s played an important role in the nation’s history as champions of workers rights, but the situation in Chicago shows how their usefulness has degraded over the years. No wonder Walmart has resisted organized labor so strongly even as efforts are ongoing to portray the company as the quintessential greedy and uncaring entity enriching itself on the backs of poorly paid and ill-treated workers.
Just this week and organization called Making Change at Walmart has been filling up in-boxes at media outlets with tales of worker woe from a warehouse in Southern California.
"Right now temperatures top 100 degrees daily and inside the metal containers we unload it can reach 120 degrees," according to a worker at the facility identified as Limber Herrera. "Our pay is low and injury is common. We face pollutants, inadequate access to clean drinking water, little ventilation and intense retaliation if we speak up about our working conditions. I have seen workers fired if they are injured on the job."
His story was part of the organization’s appeal for participants to join a planned a 50 mile march from Riverside to Los Angeles, apparently oblivious to the irony of protesting hot and grueling working conditions by going on a hot and grueling hike.
The following week, an email from Making Change at Walmart asserted tensions had risen at the facility since the 50 mile march was announced and another worker, Marta Medina, was offered as an example of Walmart’s evil.
"After five years lifting heavy boxes every day in the warehouse my body aches. I am 31. Walking is difficult, lifting my son is nearly impossible, and I frequently have very painful back spasms."
She said she finally left her warehouse job after seriously injuring her back and said she now has to fight for medical attention.
"The managers of the warehouse didn't care about my health or safety. They tried to prevent me from seeing a doctor. I fought and I won medical care, but I have seen a lot of my coworkers fired for similar injuries. They leave the warehouse hurt, with no job and no healthcare. We move goods for Walmart, but we are treated like we are disposable. To this day it makes me angry, that’s why I am joining with other workers and people who support us to end these inhumane working conditions."
Perhaps the claims made by Medina and Herrera are true and they were treated poorly. They should be given the benefit of the doubt, Walmart should investigate the situation and, if warranted, corrective action should be taken. However, at the top of the list should be making sure warehouse workers in Southern climates understand that it gets hot in the summer and that the job entails lifting and moving boxes, some of which are going to be heavy. It isn’t a stretch to imagine that if these workers were unionized there would be demands for maximum temperature requirements inside warehouses, package weights and increased pay and benefits unwarranted by the nature of the unskilled work.