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Inland Empire warehouse workers protest conditions

About 50 workers and supporters are on a six-day march to call attention to conditions at warehouses, especially those that contract with Wal-Mart.

September 17, 2012|By Victoria Kim, Los Angeles Times
  • Members of the United Farm Workers union join forces with warehouse workers in a march Sunday in East Los Angeles.
Members of the United Farm Workers union join forces with warehouse workers… (Luis Sinco, Los Angeles…)

The thermometer hit 108 degrees at one point during an ongoing six-day, 50-mile protest march from the Inland Empire to Los Angeles by warehouse employees.

No matter. Temperatures inside the metal containers the workers load and unload on a daily basis are usually much higher, hitting 120 degrees on hot days. "They become like little ovens in there," said Ruben Valadez, 61, who works as a "lumper" loading cargo at a Mira Loma warehouse.

About 50 workers and supporters started their protest march Thursday. They reached Los Angeles on Sunday afternoon, after many blisters, donated meals and nights on air mattresses in churches.

Shortly after they turned onto Cesar Chavez Avenue in Monterey Park, they were joined by more than 100 farmworkers bused in from Central California.

The march, organized by the union-backed labor group Warehouse Workers United, followed a walkout Wednesday by about three dozen workers at a Mira Loma warehouse operated by New Jersey-based NFI Industries. The labor organization is focusing on Wal-Mart, which contracts with NFI, alleging that the company sets standards in the industry because many of the warehouses service the discount giant. The group dubbed the protest "WalMarch," and plans on delivering a letter to Wal-Mart executives at the conclusion of the march Tuesday.

A spokesman for the company said it was being unfairly pulled into a political campaign by organized labor.

"Part of the union playbook is to drag the Wal-Mart name into the discussion because it gets you guys in the media to pay attention," said company spokesman Dan Fogleman. He said Wal-Mart had contacted its contractors and visited the warehouses, including the one in Mira Loma, and determined that the workers' claims were "either unfounded, or if they are legitimate, have been addressed."

NFI Industries said in a statement that it is "fully committed to doing things the right way for our people and our customers. That's the only way we know how to do business."

Guadalupe Palma, a campaign director for Warehouse Workers United, said Wal-Mart had the weight to fix problems in the industry.

"We know well that they are a very powerful organization," she said. "They can do better, they can step in and improve conditions in warehouses that move their merchandise."

A study released in June by the labor-backed National Employment Law Project blamed Wal-Mart's cost cutting for worsening pay and benefits for warehouse workers in the logistics industry that supply the retailer.

In July, Warehouse Workers United filed a complaint with the California Division of Occupational Safety and Health urging an investigation into what it called hazardous conditions at the Mira Loma warehouse. Cal/OSHA has previously issued $256,445 in citations for violations at other warehouses operated by the company in Chino, after complaints from the group.

An NFI spokeswoman said the citations are on appeal.

Raymond Castillo, 23, who has worked at various warehouses since he was 18, said the conditions at the Mira Loma facility were especially rough and likely to lead to accidents. He said the companies were shirking responsibility by pointing the finger at one another.

"Everybody just washes their hands, and there's no one to blame," he said.

victoria.kim@latimes.com

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