Group calls attention to unfair labor practices
During pregnancy, an occasion she figured would be joyous, 31-year-old Marta Medina, a warehouse worker in San Bernardino County, found herself more alone than ever. Reprimanded by her employers, who she claims told her “being pregnant was not part of the job description,” Ms. Medina says she was forced to work at a more grueling pace than ever before.
“I felt like they didn’t care and I was scared that I would lose my job,” Ms. Medina said in Spanish. “I felt invisible.”
Ms. Medina is now taking a stand for other warehouse working mothers and those facing a similar plight. Ms. Medina and more than 50 others reached Claremont Thursday evening on the first leg of a 5-day pilgrimage. Through their journey, the workers and their supporters hope to call attention to unfair work conditions in the Inland Empire’s warehouses, specifically those owned by Walmart.
When all is said and done the group will have walked 50 miles, from Ontario to east Los Angeles, finally stopping at Los Angeles City Hall to demand fair wages and better working conditions.
“If I have the strength to continue to work for my son, than I have the strength to work for the rights of everyone,” Ms. Medina said. “These injustices cannot continue.”
More than 85,000 people like Ms. Medina are employed in warehouses throughout the Inland Empire, according to Elizabeth Brennan, spokesperson for Warehouse Workers United, the organization that helped organize the pilgrimage. These warehouse workers are tasked to lift merchandise out of metal shipping containers and onto trucks for stores like Walmart across the country.
“With so many people, it’s easy to get lost in the shadows,” Ms. Brennan said, “and with the high unemployment, there are not many options [for work].”
Instead of ensuring the fair treatment of its workers, corporate giants like Walmart turn a blind eye to its contractors and the way they treat warehouse employees, according to Ms. Brennan. David Garcia of San Bernardino, who works for a warehouse in Eastvale, says not a day goes by that his employer does not remind him and his coworkers that they are “replaceable” or “disposable.
“We work in fear, scared to lose our jobs,” Mr. Garcia said. Suggestions on how to improve the workplace submitted into a “suggestion box” go unanswered. “I‘m marching for us today to help improve conditions for the future.”
After several smaller rallies held over the summer, the hope is that having this widespread journey and demonstrating a larger physical presence will help get the attention of companies like Walmart and encourage them to follow through and make sure that its contractors follow the law.
“The hope is that if a corporate giant like Walmart makes a change, the rest will follow,” said Stephan Padilla, one of the pilgrimage organizers.
The long journey to Los Angeles City Hall will take place over the course of 5 days and 4 nights, starting in the early morning hours and continuing through nightfall. However, the hours of walking and promise of the weekend scorcher ahead didn’t seem to dampen spirits, even after a full 6 hours of walking within the first day. As the marchers reached Claremont United Methodist Church, their purpose and energy remained palpable.
“When we fight, we win!” they cheered in a large circle as the arrived at the church, greeted by another large group of supporters.
Community groups and churches will provide meals and shelter for the marchers along their route. Thursday night ended in supper and shelter with the Claremont Methodists, many of whom have been actively involved with local organizations seeking worker justice. Seeing that their church was along the rally’s designated route, Reverend Gene Boutilier was quick to get his congregation involved.
“If you are going to believe in justice, you ought to work for justice,” Mr. Boutilier said. “There is a tendency in America to think of workers as ‘other kinds of people’ or ‘different from us.’ This march shows that these people are not different. They are our neighbors and just as much a part of our community.”
With those sentiments invigorating them, the workers continue westward along Route 66, a path once used by migrants traveling to California during the Depression with similar searches for a better life. While recognizing that the greater battle ahead involves much more than what faces them this weekend, it’s one they say they are ready to undertake.
“It’s going to be long, but it’s worth the end result, ” Mr. Garcia said.