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L.A.'s warehouse workers: invisible and exploited

Toiling in obscurity, L.A.-area warehouse workers endure harsh conditions and unfair wages.

September 07, 2009|Harold Meyerson | Harold Meyerson is editor at large of the American Prospect and an Op-Ed columnist for the Washington Post.

Los Angeles has long been a place where it's easy -- dangerously easy -- to labor in obscurity. Just ask any of the 90,000 workers employed at the immense warehouses of Ontario and Fontana, where more than half the goods unloaded at L.A. and Long Beach harbors are trucked, sorted and sent on their way to Wal-Marts, Targets, Home Depots and the like for a thousand miles around. The warehouses are a key switch-point in our new global supply chain, the place where Asian production meets American consumption.

Globally important though they may be, and even though they employ the largest concentration of private-sector blue-collar workers in Southern California, the warehouses are all but invisible. There are no signs on their exteriors, just gray or white windowless walls on the boxlike behemoths (some of them comprising more than a million square feet) abutting interstates 10 and 15 as they traverse the Inland Empire. The only way to identify the buildings is by the trucks parked at their loading docks: The one with 200 Wal-Mart trucks is a Wal-Mart warehouse.

But so far as its workers are concerned, it isn't. The retailers usually don't own the warehouses (they're owned by commercial property companies) or operate them (they're operated by logistics companies). And neither the retailers nor the property companies nor the logistics companies employ most of the workers. Though many have worked full time in the same job for years, a majority of them are actually employed by one or another of the 270 temp agencies that dot the local terrain.

Fontana and Ontario have become company towns in which the companies whose goods are being handled disavow any responsibility for the conditions in which tens of thousands of largely immigrant warehouse workers toil. At its best, warehouse work is fast-paced, risky and hot (many of the warehouses lack air conditioning, and temperatures inside can rise to over 100 degrees in summer). "If people have to go to the bathroom, they have to wait until the break," a worker named Homero, who loads trucks in an area warehouse, told me in May. "If people get sick, they have to stay on the job."

The temps -- even if their jobs are functionally indistinguishable from those of full-time employees -- get no benefits and make little more than minimum wage. A complaint that the Change to Win labor federation (which has been endeavoring to organize these workers) has filed with the Labor Department documents a wide range of alleged abuses to which workers at dozens of warehouses have been subjected, including being compelled to work extra hours either for no overtime or for no pay at all, and being ordered not to report on-the-job injuries to government agencies.

The temp system at the warehouses is exquisitely calibrated to keep the supply chain fast and cheap -- and to protect retailers from the legal liability that comes with being an employer of record. As Edna Bonacich and Jake B. Wilson have documented in their 2008 book, "Getting the Goods: Ports, Labor, and the Logistics Revolution," the temps in one retailer's warehouses -- and this was before the economic downturn that devastated the Inland Empire -- were paid just $8.50 an hour when hired, though some could eventually work their way up to $12. The full-time workers employed by the company made about one-third more than the temps.

The descent of Southern California warehouse work to the level of temp exploitation is relatively recent -- a consequence, chiefly, of the torrent of Chinese imports sped through the region by mega-retailers such as Wal-Mart, which have the power to force wage reductions all along the global supply chain. As Bonacich and Juan David de Lara documented in a study released this February, temporary employment in the Inland Empire grew by a stunning 575% from 1990 to 2007.

Blue-collar L.A. has never had the prominence of blue-collar Detroit or blue-collar Chicago: "The industry" in Los Angeles means show business. Even when Los Angeles was the second-largest producer of cars (the auto factories all closed in the 1970s and '80s) and the epicenter of aerospace production (the defense plants shuttered or scaled way back at the end of the Cold War), L.A.'s blue-collar world might have been on another planet for all that millions of Angelenos ever saw or thought about it. Los Angeles is so vast and segmented that it has long been more invisible to itself than any other American city.

But even by L.A.'s standards of blue-collar invisibility, many warehouse workers in the Inland Empire labor in profound obscurity -- off in a corner of greater Los Angeles, in unmarked mega-sweatshops, working long hours for temp wages with none of the rights of full-time employees.

On Labor Day, we need to acknowledge both their existence and the value of their work -- and support their efforts to get decently paid for it.

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