Dozens of warehouse workers and their supporters walked 50 miles over six days to protest low wages and poor workplace safety. They focused on Walmart, whose goods they handle round-the-clock, calling for the retail giant to improve "deplorable" working conditions.
The "WalMarch" took them from the Inland Empire, a primary logistics and warehouse hub of the country, to Los Angeles, whose port complex processes about 40 percent of the nations imports. Local, state and congressional leaders showed their support for the workers and joined them in chanting "shame on Walmart" and other slogans.
The non-unionized workers, who were on strike, are supported by Warehouse Workers United, an union-backed organization that has been working with warehouse workers on workplace safety and other labor concerns. Warehouse workers said they lacked clean drinking water and safe equipment, worked in 100 plus degree heat, and were given inhuman workloads.
"We are calling on Walmart to take responsibility for working conditions in warehouses," said Guadalupe Palma, campaign director with Warehouse Workers United. Walmart, who contracts to many of these facilities, said the claims are unfounded or have been addressed.
"We take allegations of workplace issues very seriously," said Walmart spokesman Dan Fogleman. "We've conducted a thorough review and are in the process of taking specific and concrete steps to help ensure workers at all levels of our supply chain are treated with dignity and respect." Some of these steps include conducting contract reviews with service providers, implementing improved health and safety standards and creating a protocol for random inspections, according to Fogleman.
In October 2011, an unannounced inspection by the California Division of Labor Standards and Enforcement of a warehouse operated by Walmart contractor Schneider National resulted in an over $1 million fine to staffing agencies at the facility.
When asked for a comment regarding the march, Schneider pointed out it currently follows worker safety standards and requires its vendors to do so as well.
After the fine, warehouse workers filed a lawsuit in federal court seeking years of allegedly stolen wages. Walmart executives recently toured facilities in Southern California after multiple citations and lawsuits had been filed. Eighty percent of the region's 114,000 warehouse workers are Latino. Unemployment almost 12 percent. Workers Franklin Quesada and Victor Ramirez have worked with Schneider for more than eight years. They say they've seen their workloads and pressure from management increase significantly.
"They treat us like animals," said Ramirez. Employers, he says, keep upping the work load Ramirez and Quesada say they've been targeted for their involvement in protests and are easily written up for any misstep, no matter how small.
"We're suffering a lot of repression," said Quesada who had been in a wheel chair after he recently injured his back on the job due, he said, to an ever-increasing workload. "We're in a fight and we won't give up," he said as he hobbled along at the back of the march out of his wheelchair.