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Unions hope to organize Inland Empire warehouse workers

A labor coalition known as Change to Win is focusing on the vast warehouse and distribution hub in the region, which handles goods from the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach.

July 01, 2009|Ronald D. White

The Inland Empire has become a new battleground for unions looking to organize warehouse workers and broaden labor's clout in international trade, a $300-billion industry in the Southland.

The fledgling movement is backed by a coalition of unions with more than 6 million members known as Change to Win. That's the national labor group that broke with the AFL-CIO in 2005 and includes the Service Employees International Union, the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union, the United Farm Workers of America and the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, among others.

The unions' targets are warehouse and distribution centers in the Inland Empire counties of San Bernardino and Riverside, which together make up one of the nation's biggest logistics networks. The facilities handle much of the container cargo that moves through the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, the busiest trade gateway in the United States.

"They want to start here because there is such a large concentration of the industry here. It's a great sandbox and it would be a real coup if they do it," said John Husing, an economist who specializes in the Inland Empire goods-movement industry.

Nearly 2,900 warehouses of at least 50,000 square feet each dot the Inland Empire. The facilities, which employ nearly 113,000 people, are operated by hundreds of companies, including some of the nation's largest retailers.

The unions' strategy is to try to build broad-based community support for better working conditions for warehouse workers, much in the way that labor was able to convince businesses that janitors were being treated unfairly.

"It is a huge, monumental task. You cannot do this one warehouse at a time," Tom Woodruff, organizing director of Change to Win, said from his office in Washington. "There needs to be a general union movement. We expect to have a long-term campaign there." Retailers said the best way to raise living standards for workers is through a strong industry and a vibrant U.S. economy.

"If we are concerned, we are concerned about efforts in Washington that would change the rules for union organization," said Rob Green, vice president for government and political affairs at the National Retail Federation.

Green was referring to federal legislation backed by Change to Win that would make it far easier for workers to join unions.

The organizing effort comes at a tough time for the warehouse and distribution industry, which has long been one of the region's most dependable sources of jobs.

Warehouses in the Inland Empire added nearly 40,000 positions from 2000 to 2007, Husing said.

But international trade has been slammed by the recession, and Husing said warehouse employment has fallen 6.7% from the peak in 2007, with most of those losses coming this year.

If the organizing movement gains traction, he said, it might prompt some of the nation's biggest and best-known retailers to move their warehouses to parts of the country where costs are lower.

The unions see the economic downturn as an opportunity to make inroads with blue-collar employees, who they say haven't shared in the tremendous wealth generated by international trade.

Woodruff said retailers increasingly are outsourcing their distribution work to independent delivery companies and temporary agencies that offer low wages and few benefits.

That's hurting the livelihoods of workers such as Olga Romero, 55, of Fontana.

Since the recession took hold, Romero said, she has gone from working directly for a retailer that offered healthcare coverage and other benefits to accepting lower-paying jobs obtained through temporary-placement agencies. And even that work has dried up.

"I had paid vacation, a 401(k), but since I started working through temporary agencies, there have been no benefits and I have not been able to earn much more than $8 an hour," Romero said. "Since January, I have not been able to find any work at all."

A labor group calling itself Warehouse Workers United is handling the local organizing effort.

This year it has held a series of demonstrations. It has blocked the entrance of a Wal-Mart warehouse, organized a sit-in and picket line at a temporary-employment agency and blocked an intersection used by several warehouses in Ontario.

The group has yet to unionize a single workplace, but a spokesman said the struggle had just begun.

"We're not expecting to get these workers into the middle class this year, but we think our momentum is growing," said Nick Allen, campaign coordinator for Warehouse Workers United. "The workers are hungry."

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ron.white@latimes.com

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