In the small town of Breaux Bridge, La., Martha Uvalle and her co-workers at C.J.'s Seafood, a Walmart supplier, faced abuses many Americans imagine only take place in poorer, faraway countries: They were forced to work shifts of up to 24 hours, with no overtime pay; threatened with beatings if their breaks lasted too long; and, on at least two occasions, locked inside the facility to work. Some fell asleep at their workstations from exhaustion.
Uvalle had heard that there were organizations that defended the rights of immigrant workers like her. In 2011, someone had mentioned a group called the National Guestworker Alliance (NGA).
But, for a year, she held on to the number and didn't call. Change seemed impossible.
So when Uvalle gave the NGA's number to her feisty co-worker, Ana Rosa Diaz, it was an act of tremendous courage. Diaz then actually called the NGA to report the working conditions at C.J.'s.
“Apart from the fact that he [general manager Michael LeBlanc] screams at us, he humiliates us all the time, apart from the fact that we were being made to work these excessive hours, this year the supervisors blocked the doors to the plant so we couldn’t take breaks,” Diaz told YES! Magazine of her C.J.'s experience. “One supervisor threatened to hit us with a shovel. And finally the thing that pushed us over the edge was that the employer threatened our families if we reported him.”
The workers' action, and a subsequent investigation of C.J.'s by the U.S. Department of Labor, was like a first spark falling on a vast, dry field. The actions at C.J.'s Seafood helped inspire the recent strikes and walkouts in Walmart warehouses and stores, where workers had already been struggling to organize. The walkouts have now spread to 28 stores in 12 states, according to the New York Times.
Several groups of workers around the country have announced a nationwide call to arms, including employees of Walmart suppliers in Illinois, California, and the small seafood town of Breaux Bridge. Many are calling it the first strike in Walmart's 50-year history.
The demands? That Walmart improve working conditions and wages for the company's employees, and negotiate better protections against exploitative practices by companies like C.J.'s that supply Walmart's products.
A climate of intimidation
As Jacob Horwitz, a lead organizer with the NGA, listened on the other end of the phone line, Ana Rosa Diaz described her working conditions.
Diaz, 40, is a mother of four children who still live in her home town of Tamaulipas, Mexico. Like most of her coworkers, she traveled to the United States under an H2B work visa as a guestworker. This particular visa permits non-U.S. citizens to enter the country for temporary or seasonal employment on terms that make it difficult to switch employers once approved.
This past season, C.J.’s Seafood employed 48 workers, 40 of whom were in the U.S. as guestworkers. In reporting their employer, LeBlanc, for labor abuse, the workers of C.J.’s faced the possibility of deportation or being blacklisted by future employers.
According to the investigative report from the labor watchdog Worker Rights Consortium, C.J.'s employees endured 16- to 24-hour shifts and received a wage of two dollars for every pound of crawfish peeled. If their breaks lasted longer than five minutes, one of the supervisors, Manuel Mendoza, threatened to beat them with a shovel used to stir the crawfish.
The workers started their shifts at 2 a.m. and worked until 6 p.m., with no overtime compensation. They boiled, peeled, cleaned, packaged, and froze the crawfish that bring the LeBlanc family business between $20 and $50 million in annual revenue, according to Manta.com.
C.J.’s Seafood sells 85 percent of its crawfish to Walmart. Yet the crawfish supplier is a microscopic part of the business that Walmart does with suppliers around the country and overseas. According to the National Guestworker Alliance, there are 60,000 Walmart product suppliers in the United States alone.
As the single largest customer for many of these suppliers, Walmart has the leverage to demand the lowest prices, a practice that compels some to make ends meet by squeezing their workers.
While labor laws still protect guestworkers, they help only when enforced. According to the U.S. Department of Labor’s 2012 Fiscal Year Budget, the Wage and Hour Division employed 898 investigators to enforce labor laws at the beginning of 2010. This covers more than 135 million workers in more than 7.3 million establishments throughout the United States. Following an aggressive hiring effort, by the end of 2010 the division was able to expand to 1,038 investigators. This year, it has requested an increased budget to continue expanding.
The increases of 2010 still leave each inspector responsible for one and a quarter million workers, a situation that allows the conditions seen at C.J.’s Seafood and elsewhere to pass largely unnoticed.
Some employers who want to provide honest and fair working conditions have been pressured out of the industry. LeBlanc, who also serves as the director of the Crawfish Processors Alliance, lobbied against better protections for guestworkers in April of 2012 when the Department of Labor considered implementing new rules for the guestworker program. These changes would have ensured wage increases, protections against deportation and retaliation, as well as job opportunities for U.S. workers. But because of the pressure from business owners like LeBlanc, the changes were never made.
Inspiration of a movement
The employees of C.J.’s Seafood returned to work year after year despite the fact that they were getting paid much less than the minimum wage and lived under 24/7 surveillance. Victor Ramos was in his third season, Martha Uvalle was in her sixth, and Ana Rosa Diaz was in her eighth when they decided the pressure to fill orders was making conditions unbearable.
According to Diaz, after a desperate worker called 911 one night, Leblanc rounded up all of the guestworkers in the plant facilities, locked the doors behind them to keep the American workers out, and told the immigrants he had contacts with good people and bad people and knew where all of their families lived. They wouldn’t be able to hide.
When police officers arrived in response to the call, the workers told them the call had been a mistake.
Still wearing their hairnets from a day of processing crawfish, eight workers confronted LeBlanc on June 4 outside the trailers that served as their homes. Through a translator, they told him that they would no longer allow him to treat them with disrespect and demanded he end the forced labor on his property.
“He was very shocked and began denying everything,” said Victor Ramos, one of the workers. “He was denying that [the things we were saying] ever happened or were true.”
The workers left the facility and attempted to deliver a letter describing their work conditions to the nearby Sam’s Club, a retail outlet owned by Walmart, where C.J.’s Seafood is sold. They were turned away.
Next, they filed complaints with the U.S. Department of Labor, which opened investigations coinciding with the investigation by the Worker Rights Consortium. In the last week of June, the striking workers held a 24-hour fast outside of Walmart board member Michele Burns's Manhattan apartment, alongside other NGA members. The workers started a petition that gathered 150,000 signatures in a month.
Following findings of labor violations reported by the Worker Rights Consortium, on June 30 Walmart suspended business with C.J.’s Seafood. For now, this suspension is an admission that there are problems that violate Walmart’s Standards for Suppliers. But since C.J.’s is a seasonal operation and the suspension occurred in the off-season, it is difficult to gauge how far this admission will go.
During the last week of July, the Department of Labor concluded their investigation of C.J.’s. It fined the company $248,000 for safety, wage, and hour violations. That includes $76,608 in back pay to 73 workers, for paying less than the minimum wage and failing to compensate workers for overtime over the last two years.
The NGA acknowledges the suspension and the fines as victories to celebrate, but its organizers know the fight is not over.
"WalMarch" sparks wave of actions
In September, walkouts and protests spread to California, this time involving employees who worked directly for Walmart. Thirty workers from a warehouse in Mira Loma, Calif., walked out in early September to protest unsafe working conditions. According to a report by the Huffington Post, the workers reported temperatures of up to 120 degrees, no access to clean water or regular breaks, and faulty work equipment.
Ana Diaz, having received recognition for her successful role in outing C.J.'s, was flown out from Breaux Bridge to hold an informal meeting at the offices of Warehouse Workers United, a group that works to improve the conditions of warehouse workers in Southern California’s Inland Empire. They discussed how products get onto store shelves, how many hands they pass through, and the best way to shape the global system that they each share a role in as workers.
The next day, they completed a six-day, 50-mile walk from the Inland Empire to Los Angeles where they held a rally on the steps of the Los Angeles City Hall. The “WalMarch” was inspired by Cesar Chavez’s worker march from Delano to Sacramento.
Within days of the “WalMarch,” protests over abuses comparable to those in Mira Loma developed in Elwood, Ill., at the country’s largest Walmart distribution center. Seventy percent of all imported products that the company sells in the United States pass through the Elwood warehouse, according to Leah Fried, an organizer for Warehouse Workers for Justice, an organization located in Illinois that shares the goals of Warehouse Workers United.
The Elwood warehouse was forced to close on October 1, when 600 supporters and workers held an action outside the facility entrance. Though 17 people were arrested, the workers estimate that closing the facility cost the company several million dollars. Three days later, 60 retail workers in Southern California drew on the inspiration of the warehouse workers by showing up at work to join a picket line instead of clocking in—an action supporting the freedom to demand better conditions without the fear of being fired or blacklisted by their employers.
“Workers will be challenging Walmart at every point in their supply chain and at every point in their business,” Horwitz said, “until Walmart is ready to sit down and really negotiate better rights and conditions for all of its workers.”
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Progress with a voice
Since the initial confrontation with LeBlanc, the workers of C.J.'s Seafood have found a voice within the realm of business politics. It’s still a small voice, but it’s a growing one. They have also found support from workers across the United States who fight for similar causes.
“The jobs in the warehouses are not sustainable if you cannot maintain a family” on the income the workers receive, said Elizabeth Brennan, the communications director of Warehouse Workers United. “That’s what unites people.”
Workers at the warehouse in Mira Loma returned to work on September 28 after a 15-day strike. This came after Walmart issued a statement that they will be making efforts to employ third-party monitors for their suppliers. Likewise, the workers in Elwood have returned to work under the promise that there will be no more illegal retaliation from their employer. Nevertheless, threats of further strikes—including talk of a strike on Black Friday, the biggest shopping day of the year—have continued throughout the week.
For Martha Uvalle, Ana Rosa Diaz, and other C.J.'s employees, this week brought fresh promise: The federal government provided them special visas reserved for victims of serious crimes, and they no longer face fear of deportation.
They will be using this protection to enter facilities of other suppliers throughout the Louisiana coast region, and to empower workers who face the same conditions faced—and, for now, overcome—at C.J.'s Seafood.
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