Occupy invades "America's storage shed"

Faced with protest, Walmart unilaterally shuts down three warehouses in Southern California

Published March 2, 2012 12:30AM (EST)

 Southern California's Inland Empire occupied.
Southern California's Inland Empire occupied.

Spilling out below the snow-dusted San Bernardino Mountains, California’s Inland Empire in Southern California is America’s storage shed. Its economy is a key link in the global supply chain. Goods from Asia funnel through the Los Angeles and Long Beach ports that handle more than one-quarter of all the imports pouring into the United States every year, and much of it is warehoused here before finding its way into homes and businesses across the nation. If all the storage space was gathered under one roof, more than 700 million square feet, it would make a warehouse larger than Manhattan.

With manufacturing scant in the Inland Empire, an estimated 118,000 workers are employed hustling through cavernous warehouses to stack and fetch goods or hauling them in rigs. The area is infested with banal exurbs that clump in towns such as Mira Loma, which has been tagged the “diesel death zone” for the lung-searing truck pollution that envelops it. It was in Mira Loma that a few hundred members of various Southern California Occupy movements converged at sunrise  on Feb. 29 with the goal of shutting down a Walmart distribution center.

They were joining in the one-day “Shut Down the Corporations” action staged nationwide against Fortune 500 companies like Walmart, Monsanto, Pfizer, Citibank, Koch Industries, BP, Bank of America, AT&T, Altria and Peabody Energy. According to “F29” organizers, these corporations are all big-money backers of the American Legislative Executive Council (ALEC), which critics say “rewrite state laws that … often directly benefit huge corporations.”

On a chilly, smoggy morning in front of the Walmart complex, Jared Iorio, a 33-year-old photographer and stalwart with Occupy Los Angeles, told me that the protest was the workers’ idea. Iorio says an organizing project called the Warehouse Workers United “came to the Occupy movement for support. The shutdown was our idea.”  Michael Novick, a retired Los Angeles teacher, explained that workers in the Walmart facility “called for a one-day strike today in an attempt to get union recognition and called for community support. Occupy Riverside put out a call to support their action and to have a community picket.” As for why the strike failed to materialize, Iorio speculates that was “because of pressure from Change to Win and those more entrenched in the union structure.”

The battle going on at the Walmart center in Mira Loma is an exemplary case of the chess match between capital and labor, as long as you realize labor is starting the game with virtually no pieces. On one side, Walmart’s center is run by Schneider National, a $3.7 billion logistics giant that provides services to two-thirds of the Fortune 500 companies. Schneider in turn subcontracts for workers to Rogers Premier, one of more than 400 temp agencies in the area. The workers are “permanent temps” as they may toil on the same site for years. Walmart uses the layers of subcontracting to insulate itself from legal and ethical liability for the inevitable abuses in the low-wage warehouse industry.

In an open letter to the Occupy movement, workers employed by Rogers in a Schneider-run warehouse handling Walmart’s goods told of “working up to 72 hours straight [and] not receiving even minimum wage after working 16 hour days consistently for years.” On Oct. 17 six workers initiated a class-action lawsuit against Schneider, Rogers and others for “systematic wage theft” by deliberately underpaying them and denying overtime. The state of California was investigating the warehouses at the time and hit Rogers with a fine of more than $600,000 for labor law violations. A few days after the workers filed suit, Schneider dumped Rogers and dropped the ax on more than 100 warehouse workers. The firings were set for Feb. 24, but a federal judge blocked them because she found it was likely they violated “anti-retaliation law.”

Organized labor has been trying for decades to crack Walmart, which has perfected an anti-union strategy. In the very rare instance where an organizing campaign succeeded, Walmart excised the offending limb, whether it was closing down a store in Quebec after workers there unionized in 2005 or getting rid of all in-store meat cutting after 11 butchers in a Texas store voted to join a union in 2000.

So unions have been pursuing a new strategy with Walmart, particularly with the warehouse workers in Mira Loma. The Warehouse Workers United is a project of  Change to Win, which was set up in 2005, mainly by the Teamsters and Service Employees International Union, as an alternative to the AFL-CIO (and has since foundered). The organizing model hearkens back to the labor militancy of the 1930s before employers gained an enduring advantage after the Taft-Hartley Act passed in 1947. Warehouse Workers United has engaged in door-knocking campaigns in the Inland Empire’s poor communities as well as establishing a workers center. It is trying to use the model of a corporate campaign, which moves beyond the workplace, to mobilize community support to pressure corporations. The goal is to force Walmart to the table, make it accept responsibility for workers in its warehouses, and improve their pay and conditions.

One of those other means is the Occupy movement. The sight of muscular unions (compared to other social movements) dialing 911 for raggedy anarchist-inspired occupiers is a telling sign of the power of the Occupy brand. Lending support to the Walmart workers on Feb. 29 were occupiers from Los Angeles, Fullerton, Riverside and San Bernardino. We arrived to find an overwhelmingly youthful crowd with a band of black bearing homemade plastic shields, gas masks and bandannas across their faces, adding color to the soul-crushing sprawl of the Inland Empire. We followed demonstrators as they wandered to and fro, discovering that all three Walmart distribution centers there had been preemptively shut down.

Lacking targets, the protest fell back to chants of “Whose streets? Our streets” and sauntered down the roadway. Vehicles began to stack up, and one hyped-up participant pounded his shield on cars, frightening some of the unfortunate passengers. Cooler heads surrounded him, and a few minutes later a cheering gantlet opened to let what were probably low-wage workers go on their way. The cops arrived and blocked off the main intersection, aiding the goal of stopping business for the day, and a police chopper started circling above.

As the sun climbed the group split up, taking positions at two side streets leading to other warehouses. At one post a car bearing amps was deployed and dance music lightened the mood as the group hunkered down for the day. Novick said “it was a victory” even though it was Schneider that had shut down the three warehouses. “They know there is community support for the workers.”

He wasn’t blowing smoke. For an event that was heavily promoted both regionally and nationally, the only surprise early on was the lack of police and private security. It’s not hard to guess why. Novick said so many police were deployed during the Dec. 12 port actions they caused far more disruption of business than the 700 or so protesters who engaged in the blockade. Plus, Walmart has been trying to curry – some say buy – favor with community groups and food activists. Images of a pitched street battle with tear gas and hundreds of arrests would not have burnished Walmart’s image.

I queried Novick as to why there were not more protesters there. Where was labor? Novick responded with evidence of a troubling trend for the Occupy movement – how fractures are appearing. He said in Los Angeles the big unions and faith-based groups have separated from Occupy and set up the “99 percent table.” Novick says he thinks the move is a retreat.

“I think labor has been committing slow suicide for a long time, and I think Occupy actually reversed that in a very positive way," he said. "You saw a lot more dynamism and an attempt to do community organizing and relate it to workplace organizing.” Novick adds that there are some valid reasons for the retreat, mainly because the strength of organized labor in Los Angeles is the immigrants rights movement, which is at far greater risk from the repression than the average young white occupier in the center of the organizing.

A short while later the languid atmosphere vaporized the instant a trucker came toward us from one of the warehouses. About a dozen occupiers, including a woman in a wheelchair, flocked together and blocked the truck. Masks were pulled up and shields readied. The driver was Hispanic, as is much of the community and work force in the region, came to a halt, turned off his engine and exited his cab. Protesters engaged him in Spanish and English, others debated what to do, with one of the first speakers declaring that even if everyone else wanted to let the truck pass he alone would hold the line. The main point of contention was the effect of their blockade on this one worker versus the broader goal of stopping business as usual.

This type of maximalism bubbled up, with another youth proclaiming to all within earshot, “If we can’t stop the flow of commerce, why are we here?" Another suggested, “If he loses his job he can join Occupy.” Less strident voices weighed in with more sophisticated analysis, asking if the driver was a union worker or not. One woman reminded everyone of the context, “Our goal today was to stop Schneider.” Another protester noted, “The first thing he said to us was, ‘I’m afraid I’m going to lose my job.’ We’re not from this community and he has to live with the consequences of our actions.”

Jared Iorio explained how they approached the issue.

“There were more rowdy elements who were callous and that needs to be addressed," he said. "We did talk to as many people as possible who were stopped in their vehicles. We handed them a bottle of water and a granola bar and talked to them that we were doing this action on behalf of unorganized workers who were trying to better their lives. We explained we were not trying to inconvenience them, but inconvenience the CEOS who were profiting from them. The outreach was pretty organized, and once we explained what we were doing there were a lot of truckers who supported us.”

The same debate broke out at the other blockade, Iorio explained, pitting the anti-capitalists who wanted to stop all commerce against those who favored a more calibrated approach.

“We do our best to mitigate the economic impact on individuals," he went on. "We stopped a Walmart and a Micro truck, as well as two other drivers who were paid hourly so they were not really upset, but we let through a truck with an empty load for a company we were not targeting.” He says that the protest included “people who had family members who were truckers. They explained how being an independent contractor works as a trucker and multiple times a week they often are unable to get a load, so stopping it one day is not going to make them lose their homes or families.”

It was a fascinating experiment in crowd sourcing. The Achilles' heel of the movement was out in the open, with a number of people pleading with the maximalists to consider different perspectives, while noting, “I can’t make you do anything.” But so was Occupy’s strength and idealism. Through collective debate and discussion the crowd can arrive at the correct decision through reason, not force.

The scene also brought to mind something Ruth Fowler of Occupy Los Angles had just told me: “Occupy is very odd right now. The people who have stayed are the cream of the crap, and the brilliant. The rank and file in between are at home ... It's an interesting dynamic. Not entirely comfortable. Lots of loonies floating around.”

As for the driver, who said he was hauling toilets, he was not interested in the finer points of solidarity and community organizing. He got into his cab and backed up as if he was returning to the warehouse. The protesters cheered their surprise victory. Instead, he slipped into a nearby parking lot and sped away. A few ran after his truck, but it was too late.

A handful of masked avengers spontaneously upped the ante by uprooting street signs and took revenge by barricading their nemesis, the parking lot entrance. I walked over to take pictures of their handiwork, and upset one of them. I find this perspective odd. Everyone there knows this is a public event. It’s occurring out in the open. They are desperate for media coverage. But this one fellow was indignant I was not granting him a sphere of privacy for his very public acts. He had remembered to bring his mask, but left his thinking cap at home. He accused me of being a cop. I shot back, “How do I know you’re not a cop?” and thought, why bother with the mask if you think you can be identified by my amateur digital camera? The area was probably festooned with high-tech surveillance devices by corporations and police that had already mapped every hair and pimple on his face.

Things calmed down, and it seemed a good time for a coffee break. We walked back to our car, and two occupiers passed by. One commented, “We were expecting riot cops and tear gas, not Lady Gaga.” The other responded, “I’d prefer the riot cops and tear gas.”

We returned an hour later and the storm had broken. At the north end of the facility were a line of riot police who blocked our path south. We went around the back end, parked and walked north. We could see 100 or more tan-shirted cops in the distance confronting a similar number of protesters and at least two police choppers. I counted 45 cop cars alone on the South end from agencies including the Riverside County Sheriff, Ontario Police, Moreno Valley Police and California Highway Patrol. One could have easily recorded the license plate of every unmarked police car within a 10-mile radius. We were again prevented from getting closer than perhaps a quarter mile. We watched with a group of protesters as demonstrators were moving in and out of a facility.

Desperate for information we started talking to anyone and everyone and noticed trickles of protesters casually walking to safety. It turns out many had entered the grounds of a food company and had made their way through a hole in the fence. Others who remained on the line opposing the police said the cops charged a few times, swinging batons but the demonstrators stuck together with the shield bearers protecting them. Iorio says he was aware of only two arrests, with one person “beat up by seven or eight cops.” He added that there were numerous “instances where protesters unarrested someone who had been grabbed by the cops.”

About half a dozen protesters came toward us wearily and plopped down under a shade tree on the manicured lawn. One supporter popped a pharmaceutical vial labeled “Executor,” fingered a neon-green bud and packed a bowl for a victory toke as cops at a checkpoint nearby warily observed.

Ultimately, says Iorio, “The police did what Walmart wanted. I also don’t think Riverside County had the capacity to arrest more than 200 people. They like to make a few examples, rough them up and arrest them but not prosecute them so they can frighten people away from direct action for a year until the charges expire.”

As the day wound down we talked with workers at other facilities. All were wary. We explained the conditions at Schneider, the allegations of wage theft and why the protesters said they were out there today. Not one worker knew what was going on, either with the protest or with Schneider, which was literally next door. A few workers had nothing but praise for conditions in their own warehouse. But none would give up information about how long they have worked there, their pay or what their jobs actually entailed. One said his company “was great. I don’t have any complaints.” He slyly added, “At least not today.” He said he had heard of Occupy, “I support it. They are for human rights, for workers' rights.”

The story was the same outside a Lennox warehouse facility. Silence or praise of the workplace from a half-dozen workers in green safety vests chowing on pepperoni pizza. As we told of the conditions at Schneider, the anxiety seemed to increase. The workers shifted around uncomfortably, hunched over their food, averting their gaze. At the main entrance a woman in professional attire conferred with a man with a walkie-talkie. She turned quickly and went inside as he came up to us. We politely explained we were just having an informal chat. He had the bearing of someone who knows his place in the corporate ecosystem. With his green vest and walkie-talkie he was probably a line supervisor. Not one worker at the table would look him in the eye. But he appeared to share their fear, delicately choosing his words like someone who could be canned in an instant if he said the wrong thing. He said he wanted everyone to have good wages and working conditions.

Doesn’t everyone? Not even the most callous CEO will ever say they want Americans to juggle multiple part-time jobs for a lifetime of poverty as long as their health holds up, after which they can be tossed on the scrap heap. People like 22-year-old Alberto Hernandez, who came to protest with his brother. Alberto described factory life in the Inland Empire. He worked 70-hour weeks in an aluminum factory with shoddy safety equipment. At age 18 he was ecstatic at his wages.  “I made $545 a week,” he exclaimed. But the job came with panic attacks, having to move 12,000 pounds of aluminum a day, bloody noses and headaches from the aluminum dust. He realized that there could be a better life, and haltingly spoke of wanting to educate himself.

For half of America the reality is similar: poverty or one paycheck away from it. And that’s what Wall Street cheers every second of the day. Drive down wages, fire workers, bulldoze regulation. They all fatten the bottom line. The isolated workers with their lack of rights are precisely whom the occupiers were fighting for. Some of the workers know it, but they can’t see beyond the gulf of fear to risk for something better. Many of the occupiers are willing to take great risks, sometimes to their own detriment, but have difficultly connecting to people who aren’t looking to wage revolution. It’s not a new story, but the two sides are closer than they have been in decades. And that is what really frightens the 1 percent.

By Arun Gupta

Arun Gupta, a New York writer and co-founder of Occupy the Wall Street Journal, covers the Occupy movement for Salon.

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By Michelle Fawcett

Michelle Fawcett, Ph.D., is an adjunct professor in the Department of Media, Culture and Communications at NYU and is reporting on the Occupy Movement nationwide.

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