JOLIET, Ill. - As a way to honor Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., religious and labor leaders here announced a boycott of Bissell products after 70 workers were fired last year.
The workers and their supporters say they were fired en masse after they blew the whistle on several violations at the company's warehouse. They filed legal complaints over several violations of state and federal law and after the workers announced to management that they were organizing a union they were fired.
Steve Jackson is a social justice minister with Christ the Servant parish in Woodridge, Ill.
"This boycott is about bringing justice to the workers who were wrongfully fired," Jackson told the World by phone.
"We're not going to wait and we're going to tackle Bissell head-on with this boycott," he said. "As the religious community we will not tolerate abuses of human dignity."
Jackson notes, "We are also using the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday to announce this call to action because he was killed trying help sanitation workers in Memphis, Tenn., more than 40 years ago."
Jackson said he and a group of other clergy leaders in the area have been trying to get Bissell and the management at the warehouse to sit down and talk. But both Bissell and management refuse to discuss the matter. They continue to claim they have done no wrong, said Jackson.
"But clearly the workers were fired due to their union organizing campaign," Jackson said.
In a press release Rev. Craig Purchase of Mt. Zion Tabernacle in Joliet said, "Dr. King called for workers to have decent wages, fair working conditions and respect."
Purchase adds, "How can we celebrate the legacy of Dr. King without addressing the injustice that exist in our backyard? As a community of faith we must demand justice for our sisters and brothers."
The only way to make them listen to us is to hurt their pocket book, said Abraham T. Mwaura with Warehouse Workers for Justice.
Speaking to the World by phone Mwaura notes, "And we can't celebrate the holiday if there is a severe injustice going on."
King was killed for helping workers organize, he said. The call for a boycott today has profound meaning and it's our responsibility in understanding what celebrating King's life is all about, said Mwaura.
Boycott leaders say King fought for justice such as: decent wages; fair working conditions; livable housing; old age security; health and welfare measures; and conditions in which families can grow with quality education for their children and respect in their community.
Many of the 30,000 warehouse workers in Will County, where the Bissell warehouse is, work in sweatshop conditions, with low wages and few benefits, they say.
Some of the violations filed by the Bissell workers include:
- Discrimination against women including earning up to $2.50 per hour less than men doing the same job even with more time at the company;
- Targeting and discrimination of a pregnant woman to do the heaviest jobs in violation of her doctor's restrictions;
- The use of unregistered temporary employment agencies, which is a violation of Illinois state law;
Also, Bissell workers charge they received unfair pay, including pay cuts and paying workers less than minimum wage, with some receiving wages as low as $2 per hour. Workers also received threats of retaliation from management for standing up for their rights and filing charges, organizers said.
The firing of the 70 warehouse workers took place after the workers decided to form a union and file charges on the company's illegal practices, also a labor law violation, organizers charge.
Leaders of the action are calling on congregations and people of faith to join them in boycotting all Bissell products such as vacuum cleaners, deep cleaners, mops, brooms, brushes, hard surface cleaners, cleaning formulas and sweepers.
The religious leaders are urging supporters to sign a letter to be sent to Bissell and the warehouse management calling on them to restore the workers their jobs back and to respect their legal right to organize.