By Pat Barcas
Thursday, Oct. 4, 2012
ELWOOD — It took several hundred people and 17 arrests, but protesters managed to shut down a major distribution hub of Walmart in Elwood on Oct. 1.
The civil disobedience, blocking the street and preventing trucks from entering or leaving the huge warehouse, was meant to draw attention to a work stoppage by warehouse workers, one that’s been ongoing since Sept. 15.
A small group of non-union workers walked off the job then, complaining of workers’ rights violations, unpredictable hours, and even wage theft. This was after management fired people who had raised awareness of the problems inside the plant, later changing the firings to suspensions.
Four people are currently suing the Walmart subcontractor Roadlink Workforce Solutions, charging wage theft and other labor violations that range from improper equipment used in the plant, to making workers walk the length of the huge, several football field long warehouse to clock in and out each day.
Now, about 40 Roadlink workers want justice as they strike in front of the plant.
“No one should come to work and endure extreme temperatures, inhale dust and chemical residue, and lift thousands of boxes weighing up to 250 lbs with no support. Workers never know how long the work day will be — sometimes it’s two hours, sometimes it’s 16 hours. Injuries are common, as is discrimination against women and illegal retaliation against workers who speak up for better treatment,” reads a statement on the Warehouse Workers for Justice website.
The action Monday started in a public park on the other side of the warehouse. Protesters marched about a mile to the front entrance on Centerpoint Drive, before 17 people sat down in the middle of the street, singing “we shall not be moved.”
The Elwood Police Department had several squad cars and a paddy wagon lined up for the protest, but they had a surprise in store for the protesters: About 20 cops, members of the Illinois Law Enforcement Alarm System Mobile Field Force, came out dressed in full riot gear, being backed up by a black Humvee sporting a Long Range Acoustic Device (LRAD) on the roof. This device was not used, but is designed to cause discomfort and disorientation to large crowds in order to get them to disperse.
According to the Illinois Law Enforcement Alarm System (ILEAS) web site, the ILEAS Mobile Field Force (MFF) is “designed to provide rapid, organized and disciplined response to civil disorder, crowd control or other tactical situations involving the distribution of pharmaceuticals from the National Strategic Stockpile, weapons of mass destruction incidents as well as other more conventional events.”
Elwood Police Chief Fred Hayes said the special force was called as a contingency plan. He said the mostly industrial city of Elwood hasn’t ever seen any type of civil disobedience, and the police just wanted to be prepared for the protesters.
The police quickly and orderly deployed from inside the fence of the warehouse, formed a perimeter around the protesters, and, after asking them if they’d like to leave the street one last time, arrested each one, zip-tying their hands and leading them to the paddy wagon.
It wasn’t the first time being arrested for Leone Jose Bicchieri, executive director of the Chicago Workers’ Collaborative, a Chicago workers rights group that came out to protest.
“Everything went fine, they treated us well, they treated us respectfully,” he said via phone on Tuesday.
He said he received a $120 ticket with a note that said he was an “obstructing person in the highway.” He and the others have a court date of Nov. 9, but he said Warehouse Workers for Justice have offered to pay his ticket.
“The protest went very, very well. We stayed focused, people stayed calm. Everyone stuck to the plan and was respectful. I can’t ask the workers to sacrifice for the greater cause, then not sacrifice myself,” he said.