Knoxville News Sentinel: XPO Workers Needed Power of Union to Fight Pregnancy Discrimination

Workers at XPO’s Memphis warehouse spoke out against pregnancy discrimination and harassment. In response, the company shuttered the warehouse.

In October 2018, female workers from a Memphis XPO Logistics facility dedicated to handling Verizon merchandise stepped forward and told the CEOs of both companies and the media horrifying stories about pregnancy discrimination that had resulted in miscarriages.

It lent credence to complaints Memphis XPO workers submitted to regulators in the spring and summer about unwanted sexual contact at the facility and two others operated by XPO. Everyone promised to investigate the problem. Four months later, all 400 workers in the Verizon facility received letters instead stating that warehouse was closing.

But it gets worse. Workers’ notices were sandwiched between two massive rounds of XPO stock buybacks worth $1 billion and $1.5 billion. Stock buybacks, when corporations use cash to buy shares and retire them from the market, serve to boost prices to benefit market speculators and company executives themselves, who often receive significant portions of their compensation in the form of stocks.

Sexual harassment is rampant in warehousing

The workers who came forward to report violations were also starting to explore forming a union. XPO’s response to the workers who reported abuse – to simply shut down the warehouse – shows the workers had the right idea in standing together and speaking out on the job.

With the power of a union, workers would be able to fight back against XPO for suddenly closing down the warehouse by negotiating terms and having a voice in the process.

Instead, not only was the company free to shut down the warehouse without regard for workers, but it did so while awarding its shareholders more than $2.5 billion in buybacks.

The warehouse workers who will be displaced — many of whom are black women in a city where median black income remains 61 percent lower than that of white workers — labored in temperatures that could hit over 100 degrees, moved as many as 120 heavy boxes an hour and suffered health effects including, in one case, a heart attack on the warehouse floor, all for wages that reportedly range from $9 to $12 an hour.

The workers’ early allegations of abuse can’t have been surprising; sexual harassment is rampant in warehousing. (In fact, in 2010, the previous owner of this very XPO warehouse, New Breed Logistics, was sued for harassment and lost the case, paying out $1.5 million in punitive damages, back pay and awards to the four claimants.)

XPO and Verizon are playing a blame game

For XPO, pregnancy discrimination and sexual harassment could be just the tip of the iceberg. According to the online violations tracker from Good Jobs First, XPO has amassed nearly $33 million in penalties for safety and health violations, wage theft, employment discrimination, labor relations violations and other regulatory violations.

A union, still in the cards for workers to form at the other facilities, would be reinforcement connecting accounts of abuse and forcing the companies to make meaningful changes to the work environment.

While it is heartening to hear that XPO will “make every effort” to reassign laid-off workers, the only way to ensure that they are not simply in another 100-degree warehouse, experiencing health and safety violations, suffering from harassment, or dealing with wage theft is to allow them to organize and to recognize them as a bargaining partner.

As it stands, the two companies overseeing the embattled warehouse are in a game of hot potato. XPO has placed the blame for the closure squarely on Verizon. Verizon countered by claiming that the closure was all XPO’s doing. When XPO workers asked Verizon’s shareholders to support them last spring, they were assured the company was taking the allegations against its contractor very seriously. But of course, workers’ concerns have largely gone unaddressed – and now their jobs have been reshuffled.

Companies have a responsibility to protect workers

As a giant consumer of logistics services, Verizon must know, too, that retaliation is a hallmark of the industry. A survey of nearly 300 warehouse workers found that repercussions for reporting poor workplace conditions included cuts in hours, changed work assignments (often to harder and more dangerous work), humiliation in the workplace and termination.

But then, Verizon itself reacts strongly when workers seek to organize to better their situations. Recently released internal documents from Verizon to its own managers and direct employees encourage staff to use anti-union rhetoric and threats of job loss to counter efforts of those workers to organize.

In the end, both companies bear a responsibility to ensure that discrimination and harassment do not occur and to correct them when they become aware of them. Instead we see more of the usual finger-pointing while workers lose their jobs and CEOs are commended for increasing shareholder value.

XPO and Verizon provide a playbook for how not to address workplace violations. The answer is not to ignore workers who step forward to shine a light on abuses, retaliate against them or shut down entire facilities and walk away.

The story of the workers in the XPO warehouse in Memphis is one of a slow-blooming heroism and will continue to play out in facilities across the country as workers claim the power to stand together on the job and demand that companies respect their rights.

Anastasia Christman is the director of the Worker Power Program at the National Employment Law Project.

This op-ed was originally published by the Knoxville News Sentinel

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About the Author

Anastasia Christman

Areas of expertise:
  • Climate Justice,
  • Policy Analysis,
  • Procurement Policy,
  • Research,
  • Worker Organizing

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