By Nadin Abbott
As the marchers came down the street, chants could be heard: “Walmart escucha, estamos en la lucha.” (Walmart listen, we are in the fight). “One, 2, 3, 4, we don’t want your Walmart store. Five, 6, 7, 8, Walmart discriminates. “¡El pueblo unido, jamás será vencido!” (The people united, will never be defeated.)
Nearly 1,000 people attended the demonstration, according to Lorena Gonzales, Secretary-Treasurer/CEO of the San Diego and Imperial Labor Councils. They came together from local unions and a long list of community groups to demand that Walmart treat its workers fairly.
I had an opportunity to talk with Carlos Martinez, a warehouse worker at MFI in Ontario, California — a warehousing company under contract to Walmart. The mega-retailer’s use of contract outfits like MFI enables Walmart to try and distance themselves from criticisms about working conditions and benefits.
Employees at MFI have decided that they’ve had enough. They are on strike because of the working conditions at the plant. You may think that China has bad working conditions, but this facility is right here in the United States. Here are the major complaints from the workers that Martinez talked about:
- Employees do not have drinkable water
- There is no ventilation in either the warehouse or nearby trailers.
- Workers are compensated at $8/hour, and nobody gets a forty hour week. This way the company avoid benefits that are supposedly available.
- The work schedules are unpredictable, which means workers can’t plan to get a second job. Some shifts are two to four hours longs, while others are four to eight. The week is either four or five days long.
- OSHA mandates breaks, but employees at this facility do not get them, and as Martinez put it, “Nobody knows they have a right to get breaks.” Even going to the bathroom is penalized.
- The company, MFI, just wants the trucks to come in and out.
- Workers who are hurt, do not say a thing and continue working, instead of taking the time off. They know if the company finds out an employee is hurt, they can be terminated.
“We work hard to get the freight out,” Martinez said, adding that the workers have been asked to empty a trailer “in 45 minutes, from front to back” even thought the standards are for 200 to 250 packages an hour.
He said the workers truly do not abide by any labor safety regulations, and that the company “does not care for [the] health and safety of its employees.”
Martinez said they have very few step ladders for employees to safely climb to reach pallets, and that a lot of the equipment at the plant is broken. A year ago an 18-year-old employee was killed on the plant when two forklifts hit him. One of Martinez’s friends recently was hit at work by a forklift, and was told to take some pain pills and keep working.
What he and his friends are asking is for better wages, as he can’t support himself and his two daughters on what he is currently making. They are also asking for better working conditions and the equipment and training they need. That is all they are asking. For doing this, they have faced retaliation, suspensions, and even been threatened with termination.
Charlene Tubta, who works at Vons, told me that she grew up in the area.
“Walmart will ruin local business, small business owners,” she said. “They are gonna hurt.”
Tupta added that Walmart uses cheap labor.
“They don’t provide benefits unless the employees pay for very expensive benefits,” she said. “From what I understand, they push people for food stamps and welfare and they only work enough hours so they can qualify.”
Tupta said they also provide “cheap jobs with no security since they are ‘at will’ employees.”
Jose Alvarado Flores told me he “came to support the marchers.” He is an SEIU member, and heard about the march through his union. He added that one bus came all the way from Ontario — these were the warehouse workers mentioned above.
Richard Barrera, a member of the San Diego Unified School Board, reminded the audience that good jobs — meaning people don’t need two to three of them to barely survive — will allow their children to grow up into productive citizens. He also said “we need partners that will create real jobs” and that this is why the school board passed the Project Labor Agreement (PLA) to rebuild the schools. This means “apprenticeships in construction for the community of Sherman Heights.”
There were promises from the UFCW (United Food and Commercial Workers) contingent that this Walmart would be unionized — that this was not going to be a blue Walmart but a yellow one (the color of the marchers’ t-shirts). The marchers were then serenaded by a Mariachi band and by the Women Occupy San Diego Occupella Group.
Barrera closed with some stirring words: “We don’t want you to set up a store where you exploit our parents and then throw some money to charity.”