On Tuesday, the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, or MALDEF, will hold its annual awards gala and fundraiser in downtown Los Angeles. The awardees include such indisputable worthies as Linda Ronstadt and former MALDEF leader Antonia Hernandez. The real awardee, though, should be MALDEF itself, whose decades of civil rights litigation have yielded significant gains for Latinos. I haven't always agreed with all of its actions, but I generally find myself cheering it on (as I do its current campaign to create a second Latino-majority district on the L.A. County Board of Supervisors).
There's just one problem with this gala. Front and center on the invitation are the words: "Gala Chair: Wal-Mart."
Wal-Mart may be giving money to MALDEF, but it isn't a friend to Latinos, and most definitely not here in Southern California. In weighing the advisability of MALDEF's taking Wal-Mart's money and granting the corporation Latino street cred (or if not that, suite cred) in return, consider what happened on Oct. 12 in Riverside County, about an hour east of Tuesday night's dinner.
On that day, inspectors from California's Division of Labor Standards Enforcement paid an unannounced visit to one of the mega-warehouses in Riverside County to which trucks bring a huge amount of Asian (chiefly Chinese) imports from the Los Angeles and Long Beach ports. None of these warehouses has any signage, but each does the work of a specific retail chain, and the one that the state inspectors checked out was one of many in the area that is a Wal-Mart warehouse.
Not that Wal-Mart directly owns or runs its Inland Empire warehouses. They're all run by logistics companies with which Wal-Mart contracts to move its stuff, which also allows Wal-Mart to avoid any responsibility for what actually goes on inside.
Here's what the inspectors found: The logistics company (Impact) and the employment agencies from which it hired the workers in its warehouse failed to document the hours and wages of its workers. The workers are paid "piece rate" based on the number of containers they load and unload, but the pay rates remain a mystery to them, as they are not spelled out on their paychecks. The company apparently had no records of its own either.
The inspectors fined Impact $499,000 for violations of wage and hour laws. The following week, six of the warehouse workers filed a suit in federal court for back pay and additional remedies, and U.S. District Court Judge Christina Snyder on Oct. 31 issued a preliminary injunction compelling the temp agencies to alter the way they paid workers to end the immediate harm that the existing pay system was causing them.
The men and women who work in these warehouses — they number roughly 100,000 in the Inland Empire — are overwhelmingly Latino. An official of Warehouse Workers United, an organization of those workers, told me that he's "never seen a non-Latino worker at the warehouse, other than managers." All these Latino workers are at the very bottom of a labor system that Wal-Mart has erected — a system that keeps the wages of the workers in its supply chain at rock bottom, and also keeps any responsibility for those workers' mistreatment as distanced as possible from Wal-Mart itself.
Wal-Mart's indirect mistreatment of the warehouse workers is of a piece, of course, with its notorious mistreatment of workers generally. That's why Wal-Mart has had so much trouble persuading local governments in more liberal big cities like Los Angeles to allow it into their markets, and why it woos groups, like MALDEF, that can grant it a measure of liberal urban respectability as it seeks approval to open its stores.
I presume Wal-Mart's sponsorship of MALDEF's dinner is bringing the organization some much-needed funding. But in the long run, groups like MALDEF need to consider whether taking support from Wal-Mart is worth the price it may inflict on the very people MALDEF champions. In the short run, MALDEF should give the money back and tell Wal-Mart it will validate the company when the company pays its Latino workers what it owes them by law, and when it treats them like human beings.
Harold Meyerson is editor at large of the American Prospect and an op-ed columnist for the Washington Post.