Frostbite, falling freight, and forklifts on fire: America's worst Wal-Mart warehouse, revealed

"No matter how unsafe it is, they want you to just keep going," fired worker tells Salon

Published April 28, 2014 12:30PM (EDT)

  (AP/Brennan Linsley)
(AP/Brennan Linsley)

Workers at an Indiana Wal-Mart warehouse allege they were subjected to safety risks including falling freight, forklifts on fire, and frostbite – and then illegally fired for organizing in response.

“They never want you to stop working,” said fired worker David Fields. “They want you to keep working – and no matter how unsafe it is, they want you to just keep going.” Fields, who asserts he was fired this month for organizing co-workers to take on safety issues at Walmart Consolidation Center #7100, joined co-workers in filing National Labor Relations Board charges alleging illegal retaliation. He told Salon that a temp agency manager terminated him April 2, the same day workers planned to deliver a petition with 100-some signatures protesting unsafe conditions. “Seeing we were all on the same page,” charged Fields, “they got threatened, and this is why they got rid of me.” He added that management had been intentionally “secretive” about ejecting him: “They took me out the side door, and they basically fired me on lunch.”

Wal-Mart, the only company whose goods move through the Hammond, Indiana, consolidation center, has contracted Linc Logistics (a subsidiary of Universal Truckload Services) to run the facility; Linc has brought in temp agencies Malace HR and Swift Staffing. Wal-Mart, UTS, Malace and Swift did not respond to Salon’s requests for comment on the allegations. Linc “has said the disciplinary actions were unrelated to the protests in January,” according to The Times of Northwest Indiana.

While Wal-Mart doesn’t directly employ any of the facility’s workers, Fields told Salon, “Everything that Linc would tell us in the pre-shift meeting, they basically said, ‘Oh, this is Wal-Mart’s policy.’” He said that included a “policy of loading the freight high and tight,” even though “it’s unstable – it’s basically putting everybody at risk of being crushed by these falling boxes. They are quite aware of what’s happening, but they really just don’t care.”

Fields told Salon he was also repeatedly required to drive forklifts despite conditions made unsafe by accumulated rain or snow on the docks. “I mean, you can’t stop or anything like that…” he said. “It was a terrible feeling.” In addition, he charged, “the hydraulics system didn’t work properly”; “a lot of people were frostbitten”; and “there’s no fire alarms.” Workers at Walmart Consolidation Center #7100 also alleged this month that forklifts have had faulty brakes, and caught on fire.

The NLRB charges come three months after workers at the same site told Salon it took a brief work stoppage to force management to let them go home during a polar vortex-spurred state of emergency. “They revere Wal-Mart as gods …” LINC employee Dion Stammis told Salon in January. “They are running a complete slave trade under everybody’s nose.”  Employees at the facility have been organizing since last year with the Warehouse Workers Organizing Committee, a labor group backed by the United Electrical, Radio & Machine Workers of America union. Workers have brought prior OSHA and NLRB charges over their treatment there, and credit past protests with winning a rare raise and warding off a plan to make them re-apply for their jobs when Linc switched sub-contractors.

The alleged safety violations are the latest in Wal-Mart’s massive, far-reaching, and increasingly scrutinized global supply chain. Union-backed groups and other critics have urged Wal-Mart be held accountable for offenses including alleged “forced labor” at supplier CJ’s Seafood in Louisiana and the deaths of garment workers in the Tazreen factory fire and Rana Plaza building collapse in Bangladesh. Both of those buildings had supplied garments for Wal-Mart; the retail giant blamed the presence of its goods in both facilities on rogue suppliers. On Thursday, the one-year anniversary of the Rana disaster, Fields joined Wal-Mart retail and warehouse workers who brandished fire extinguishers and gathered in protest outside a Chicago store.

“What I see,” Fields told Salon, “is two different people, from two different parts of the world, working for one particular company that really does not care about their employees whatsoever.”

By Josh Eidelson

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Bangladesh Indiana Linc Malace Hr Swift Staffing Universal Truckload Services Wal-mart Walmart