Wal-Mart's dirty partners pay up: Fired workers win thousands

Fired workers from Wal-Mart's top U.S. warehouse win cash and an affirmation of rights -- but not their jobs back

Published December 17, 2013 5:39PM (EST)

  (Reuters/Lucy Nicholson)
(Reuters/Lucy Nicholson)

Days after Wal-Mart warehouse workers in California announced a $4.7 million settlement over alleged stolen wages, workers fired from the retail giant’s top U.S. distribution center announced a new Labor Board settlement over allegations their activism cost them their jobs.

“We knew our rights, but the Walmart contractors running the warehouse didn’t care and fired us illegally,” ex-employee Mike Compton said in an e-mailed statement. “Now they have to pay us thousands of dollars and they should think twice before going after warehouse workers organizing!” Wal-Mart did not immediately respond to an early morning inquiry.

Wal-Mart's contractor at the warehouse, Schneider, sent Salon a one-sentence statement: “It is in the best interest of our associates and the company to settle these charges, end the distraction, and focus on what we do best: moving freight for our customer.”

Compton is one of nine Illinois workers who alleged that their employers – Schneider’s sub-contractors Roadlink and Skyward – illegally fired them for taking collective action. While the workers weren’t legally employed by Wal-Mart (or Schneider), the goods they moved were Wal-Mart’s, as was their workplace, a Wal-Mart owned Illinois distribution center which organizers say handles the majority of the retailer’s imports to the United States. As I’ve reported, Schneider also reached a $4.7 million proposed settlement, announced last week, with workers who allege Schneider violated wage laws while employing them to move Wal-Mart goods in a California warehouse complex.

The Elwood, Illinois warehouse has been an epicenter of Wal-Mart supply chain activism. In September 2012, weeks before the first coordinated Wal-Mart retail strikes in U.S. history, Elwood workers mounted a three-week strike and emerged with one of the few concrete and decisive victories from the recent wave of Wal-Mart strikes: Strikers were paid for their entire time out on strike, and four workers who’d been terminated were reinstated. But one of them, Philip Bailey, was fired again in November 2012; he told me in March that Roadlink and Schneider were “not terribly afraid to break labor law, because there’s not really a penalty for doing so.” Pro-union activists, advocates, and academics have long criticized the pace and penalties in play at the National Labor Relations Board when workers allege they were fired for organizing.

According to the union-backed group Warehouse Workers for Justice, which announced the settlement last night, the agreement means Roadlink and Skyward will pay $52,381 in back wages to the nine workers, and that Schneider and those sub-contractors will notify employees of workers’ legal rights and the companies’ commitment to comply with the law.

The settlement does not require the contractors to offer the employees the chance to return to work. Asked if that was a discouraging sign for the over twenty fired Wal-Mart retail employees whose rights the union-backed group OUR Walmart has asked the Labor Board to vindicate, WWJ Spokesperson Leah Fried told Salon that “the only reason reinstatement was not offered” was that Roadlink and Skyward are no longer operating at the Elwood distribution center. Schneider remains in the Elwood warehouse, a fact Fried argued undermined Wal-Mart’s claims to seriousness about ensuring contractors comply with the law.

“This means that I will get some much needed back pay before the holidays,” ex-employee Bakari Whitfield said in a statement, “but also that other warehouse workers will now know their legal rights to organize for justice.”

By Josh Eidelson

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Contracting Labor Law Nlrb Schneider Strike Sub-contracting Union Unions Wal-mart Walmart Warehouse