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Warehouses Are Today’s “Dark Satanic Mills”

Mark Balentine

Working in a warehouse during a pandemic means taking your life in your hands — and doing it for poverty wages. An activist with Warehouse Workers for Justice in Illinois tells Jacobin the story of how he finally got fed up, how he and other workers are fighting back, and what would happen if every warehouse worker in the country took the day off.

Workers in an Amazon warehouse. (Scott Lewis / Flickr)

Interview by
Alex N. Press

One year into the pandemic, workers continue to suffer at the hands of employers who cut corners on health and safety. Government enforcement of existing safety standards is lackluster: the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) is understaffed and at times seems willfully uninterested in investigating complaints. Indeed, it wasn’t long ago that the investigative website Reveal found that Indiana’s state OSHA had deleted citations and fines against an Amazon warehouse where a worker had died. The agency went so far as to advise the company on how to blame the worker for his own death. Meanwhile, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has yet to set new air standards for workplaces, despite the urging of scientists.

That is the context in which warehouse work has taken place over the past year, with workers risking their health to make a living. While some facilities have avoided devastating outbreaks, others have not, and workers across companies complain of employers’ unwillingness to communicate with them about COVID-19 cases inside the warehouses. A recent report put together by Warehouse Workers for Justice and Chicago Workers’ Collaborative notes that warehouses have been second only to nursing homes in COVID-19 cases in Illinois, with at least 165 outbreaks at factories, warehouses, distribution centers, and food production facilities since July 2020. Of the food workers interviewed in the report, 65 percent said that either they or someone they knew at their workplace had contracted COVID-19. And 85 percent said that their employer either didn’t respond to workers’ complaints, retaliated against workers who spoke up with concerns about the employer’s handling of COVID-19, or took action that didn’t improve the situation.

In Joliet, Illinois, this is a particularly pressing problem: the city, just outside of Chicago, is a logistics hub. Joliet already has an Amazon warehouse, and there is currently a fight over a proposed development project, the Compass Global Logistics Hub by NorthPoint Development. Mars Candy, the world’s largest candy manufacturer, also has a warehouse in Joliet.

Jacobin’s Alex N. Press spoke to Mark Balentine, who was, until recently, employed at the Mars warehouse.


ANP

You were working at the Mars Candy warehouse at the beginning of the pandemic.

MB

I’ve worked at a number of warehouses, and Mars was the last one when COVID-19 started. My job was to unload boxes into a bin when the candy goes through a machine. Have you ever been to a store where they have big bags of candy mixed up — Snickers, Milky Ways, and the like? We used to fill those bags and store them for the partners next door who shipped everything out. We packed the candy.

There were maybe three hundred people there. We did gum, but the main things were Snickers and M&M’s. Those were the hot items, as we say. I unloaded pallets and I dumped the candy into a machine. After it went through the machine, the girls on the other side packed it into boxes. Then another guy on the far end would put it on pallets.

ANP

Why did you leave the warehouse?

MB

Right before COVID-19 really set in, I quit. I walked away from it because it was totally unsafe.

When COVID-19 first broke out, and people were saying everyone should stay home, and everything was shutting down, the warehouse didn’t give us masks, gloves, nothing. And I was working through a temp service. Me and a few other people got weary. We were wondering why we were working here with no protections, so the temp service gave us masks. Okay, so we’re working, and I’m hearing about people getting sick, but they’re not informing us. Now, mind you, the area where I worked had maybe five of us back there. And the candy moves so fast, so we’re bumping into each other — there’s no possibility of social distancing. We had to help each other to keep the machine running, and they weren’t informing us.

It just so happened I had a freak accident, not on the job, where I got hurt. I was going to come back to work after, but then one day, I was making phone calls for WWJ (Warehouse Workers for Justice), and I spoke to a young woman who had worked with me every day at the warehouse. She had disappeared — and we worked directly right next to each other, bumping into each other, sweating up a storm. I asked her what had happened to her, and she said, “Oh, they didn’t fire me. They didn’t tell you? I had COVID.”

After she told me that, I went back to work and I asked my supervisors. I told them about this conversation, and I said, “Why wasn’t I informed that I need to quarantine or get myself checked out?” The supervisor told me, through another supervisor, to stop making trouble. Making trouble? So I decided I was done. My life is much more important than packing candy during a pandemic. I don’t see what is so essential about candy during a pandemic, when people are dying. That shows me that they don’t care about me; all they want is money in their bank account. That was the last straw. A lot of people stayed, and we had two people die from COVID. But I couldn’t take it. I quit on April 19, 2020, and I started working more with WWJ.

ANP

So what have you been doing with WWJ since you quit Mars?

MB

I’ve been with the campaign about these warehouses, particularly these food warehouses. We’re letting the world know that these places aren’t safe. They aren’t notifying people about health issues. They’re not worried about people taking COVID home to their families. The bottom line is about the money.

We did a survey with food workers, and I got a lot of people to sign up for that and answer questions about working during the pandemic. A lot of people started calling me to tell me about how people in their warehouses had COVID, and how they’d send the temp workers home without pay. It wasn’t right. If they work somewhere every day faithfully, and punch your clock, and give 110 percent, why can’t you give them the right treatment when it comes to hazards? This is major — people are dying.

So I started putting the word out: we’re holding these companies accountable. Take Amazon. They brag about how Jeff Bozo — I call him Jeff Bozo — made $90 billion during the pandemic. How much of that $90 billion went back to your workers to show your appreciation of their having taken the chance of bringing a disease home just to make sure your orders get out?

If you look around your office, 95 percent of the things in that room come from a warehouse. Warehouse workers should be considered frontline workers. You think COVID shut the world down? Just imagine if every warehouse worker decided to take the day off, all at the same time. We need to do something about what’s happening to people who have to come to work. And we’re starting to get results — for example, with Mars. Workers weren’t getting hazard pay, and then they got a $3 raise.

ANP

What exactly happened at the Mars warehouse? I know that WWJ was involved in a rally that workers held in September 2020 over the lack of hazard pay and personal protective equipment (PPE), and that there are allegations of the company retaliating against workers for organizing to demand these improvements.

MB

The workers won, thanks to pressure. The company wasn’t giving the workers or the temp workers hazard pay, but once we started gathering people together, all of a sudden, everybody got a $3 raise. But they gave them a raise for one month. How is that going to help people if the pandemic is still going on? There are a lot of situations like this. For example, I’m on my way out this afternoon to do outreach to the Amazon workers about the conditions on the inside. Somebody has to start holding these people accountable, or they’re going to continue to do what they do. And it starts with these politicians who have their pockets greased by these companies to make sure that people don’t hear us.

ANP

This move companies are making, of giving raises and then ending them shortly after, is definitely common. Amazon did that as well, offering hazard pay only to put an end to the policy by May 2020.

MB

If you have someone who is going to risk their lives to go into a warehouse and make sure your product gets out, why not make sure that they have enough money to feed their family? $15.50 an hour is not enough money to raise a family these days. Why not give these people what they need?

ANP

Well, what’s the answer? Why won’t they do that?

MB

Because they feel that they don’t have to, because of who we are, our backgrounds. A lot of warehouse workers have criminal backgrounds; a lot of us aren’t as educated as other people. Take the example of someone with a felony. When you get out of jail, the first thing they’ll tell you is to find a job and become a productive member of society. Okay, first thing, let’s go to a temp service. When we go there, they find out you have felonies — and now they can tell you what to do because they know you have no other choice but to work here.

A lot of brothers are trying to get their life together, and they do what they have to do: show up on time every day, work hard, don’t hang out on the corner anymore. They work their tails off for a year or so, and then they want to fill out an application [to get hired directly]. But when you fill out the application, the first thing that comes up is your felony from years ago, so you’re told you can’t work for the company. You can stay as a temp worker, and I’ll give you this bad insurance card, in case you get sick — when you go to the hospital, they’ll tell you that they don’t even take this insurance. The companies know that if the worker goes to his alderman or his city council to complain about it, they already own those politicians, and the elected official will tell the worker that there’s nothing they can do.

But what you can do is start holding these companies accountable. People say Jeff Bezos is a brilliant man. And he is a brilliant man — he knows how to use working Americans to get what he wants. And elected officials let these people get away with it. They tell companies like Target and Walmart to build on our land and we’ll give you a tax exemption for the next ten years. If I’m a businessman, that sounds good to me. I don’t have to pay taxes, and I’ll get some temp services in here to staff the location. I don’t have to pay for medical, I don’t have to worry about retirement plans. Just put the temps in there, keep the costs I’m paying down, and have production go higher than ever.

ANP

What should people know about WWJ’s campaigns?

MB

People should understand that a lot of workers in these warehouses are there to better their lives, and these poor working conditions and penalties on people with troubled backgrounds affect all of us. I got involved with WWJ after I worked at Walmart for three years. I was a good worker: I was doing reports at the end of the night, I was in charge of safety on my shift, and so on. When it got time to talk about promotions, they went back twenty years in my record and said I couldn’t work in the warehouse because of that. But, they told me, you can work for us through a temp service and unload the truck. I thought, “Have you lost your mind? I’m fifty-two years old, I’m not going to unload a truck.” That’s how it goes.

Until someone holds these companies accountable for what they do, it won’t change. And we, as working people, need to come together and say that enough is enough. Imagine a young woman, single, two kids, lives in Chicago but works in Joliet. First of all, you’re going to need a car. You have rent. You have two growing kids. $15.50 an hour is not going to cut it. If they raised wages to $20 an hour, it would help, but it wouldn’t solve the problem. Even if I have to do this until I die, I’m going to fight this fight until we see some changes.

ANP

Is there anything else people should know about what this pandemic has been like for people working in Joliet’s warehouses, or what needs to change going forward?

MB

The unfairness is the main thing that needs to change. Treat people like human beings — that’s it, that’s all. If you want your workers to perform, you need to show them that you appreciate them. If money is the bottom line for companies, money is the bottom line that keeps me in my apartment, that keeps me in my car, that keeps my kids fed, and that will get my kids to college. So these companies need to start paying people like you want them to work for you. If you want respect, you have to give it.

The other thing is that these warehouses need to be unionized. Unions are nothing but people coming together on the job to make a better workplace. When you have unions, employers have to take workers into consideration. A lot of warehouses have a points system. If your child gets sick and you have to take off work at the last minute, you get a point on your record for it. That’s not right, and that’s the type of thing a union won’t allow.