I believe in that most basic of American values: honest, hard work as an avenue to a better life. I bet you do, too.
In recent months, I have attended several events which educated me about thousands of my neighbors in the Will County area who believe in this ethic as well, and who are exploited in ways that most of us who benefit from their labor can hardly imagine.
These men and women work in the huge warehouses that handle goods for enormously profitable big box stores like Walmart. Their employers find every way possible, both technically legal and illegal, to avoid paying them a living wage or provide basic benefits. Most find themselves dependent on some form of public assistance despite their willingness to work night and day to support their families.
On the evening of March 8, I attended a hearing, which was primarily a forum for women to speak out about the special kinds of abuses they endure. Virtually all women currently employed in warehouses are afraid to tell their stories because they know what happens to those who do: the abuse gets worse, and they are told to leave if they can’t take it.
The women who spoke had all suffered these consequences. They described rampant sexual harassment ranging from daily comments about their bodies, to inappropriate touching, to intimidation and unwanted invitations to have sex, to the sexual abuse of a 17 year-old worker, who cried as her mother described her ordeal at the hands of a supervisor in his 40s.
Complaints fall on deaf ears because all supervisors know that, in these desperate times, they can easily find another woman who will not complain, who will take it, in order to feed her family. That is most often their response when asked to intervene and put a stop to the harassment.
The men and women who work in warehouses in Will County and across the nation are starting to fight back. It’s not easy to organize fearful, desperate, powerless people, but more and more of us are starting to recognize that they need and deserve our support. We benefit from their labor, and we benefit from the example they are trying to set for their families by going to work everyday to earn their keep.
Right now, the system is rigged against them in unacceptable ways. To find out more about warehouses in your back yard, and what you can do to help, go to www.warehouseworker.org/ or the Warehouse Workers for Justice Facebook page.