Meet the Warehouse Workers Challenging Amazon and Walmart

Nearly every imported product from Asia comes through the Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, to be sold in big-box stores like Walmart or on e-commerce sites such as Amazon. But first, those goods are trucked to massive warehousing campuses clustered in the Riverside-San Bernardino-Ontario metropolitan area, the largest warehousing hub in the country.

The region has added more than 300,000 jobs since 2010, with logistics and healthcare driving much of the gains. At the same time, only about 4 in 10 jobs pay enough for working families to make ends meet. Job quality for the region’s mostly Black and Latinx workers has suffered because of the widespread use of labor subcontracting.

“The reality is many of the jobs that were created by the warehouse industry came through temporary staffing agencies that specialize in providing a steady supply of low-wage workers,” explains Sheheryar Kaoosji, co–executive director of the Warehouse Worker Resource Center, based in Ontario, California.

The WWRC was founded in 2011 with a mission to improve working conditions in Southern California’s warehousing industry. The center focuses on education, advocacy, and action as the means to empower workers. WWRC assists workers dealing with issues of health and safety, wage theft, and workers’ compensation when injured, and serves as a community center for workers and their families.

WWRC is a leader in confronting the trend of subcontracting and use of staffing agencies in the logistics sector. Most recently, WWRC helped establish the California Alliance for Secure Employment, a statewide coalition seeking to reverse the trend of temporary, subcontracted, and insecure jobs.

To support WWRC’s campaigns to bring accountability to Walmart’s supply chain, NELP published a report in 2012 that examined subcontracting’s harmful effects on workers. “The report helped us shine a light on the different problems across the supply chain, like dangerous working conditions, employer retaliation, and wage theft,” says Kaoosji.

A 2014 lawsuit supported by WWRC that named Walmart as liable for conditions of warehouses and staffing agencies was crucial to shifting ultimate responsibility for working conditions onto those at the top. The landmark case, which included temp workers, involvement from federal and state agencies, and driven by WWRC, was ultimately settled for over $21 million with workers winning unpaid wages, reinstatement, and direct-hire permanent jobs.

WWRC scored an enormous victory when Walmart ultimately changed practices, bringing warehouse workers in-house instead of using staffing agencies. “The victory was significant and we want more. Workers are demanding stability for their work schedules and are organizing to build power to have a say in the future of their jobs,” says Kaoosji.

In addition to taking on Walmart, WWRC has spent years helping workers organize at one of Los Angeles’s biggest warehouse companies—California Cartage. The company holds contracts with some of the nation’s biggest retailers, including Amazon. In 2014, workers won $1.9 million in back pay after Cartage violated L.A.’s living wage ordinance.

WWRC gives working people in Southern California the power to organize beyond individual workplaces. In 2016, it won the nation’s first indoor heat standard. WWRC is part of the effort to raise local minimum wages around the region and to enforce wage-theft protections. As a steering-committee member of Inland Empowerment, WWRC works to mobilize new voters and get them civically engaged.

“People need a positive vision. By building partnerships with community groups, unions, and policy organizations like NELP, we can bring the hidden problems to light. People are starting to see how the warehouse industry is affecting air quality and diminishing the tax base in their cities, with no accountability. Things are hard, but the discourse has changed a lot in the last 10 years, and we’ve synthesized our fights,” says Kaoosji.

NELP is pleased to honor WWRC for its incredible work organizing warehouse workers and building a community that is transforming California’s warehousing industry for the better.

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