'Unity rally' bolsters strikers at CleanPak
Robert Alegrete is a grandfather who has to live with his in-laws. John Phillips depends on food banks and social service agencies to help provide for his wife and four young children. Charles Maplethorpe sleeps in an eight-foot camper tucked deep in the woods; his wife left him more than a year ago. Financially, 62-year-old Ed Propper may be the lucky one of the bunch because he is able to collect Social Security disability insurance and a union pension, but he suffers from asbestos-related cancer, a bad back and sore wrists - all acquired in 25 years working at the same plant.
These are just a few of the stories being told by members of Sheet Metal Workers Local 16 who have been on strike at CleanPak International since July 9, 1998.
Alegrete, Phillips, Maplethorpe and Propper are among 28 of the original 176 workers still walking the picket line, maintaining a vigil at the plant located in Clackamas off Highway 212 every minute that it is open.
The four men have nearly 55 years of service with the company - a multinational business that turned its back on them nearly two years ago.
"Now it's a matter of principle for us," Maplethorpe, a 15-year employee, said during a "unity rally" Jan. 27 that attracted about 100 people from various unions. "We have to stand up for what is right. If we fold up, the company wins and all workers lose. If they get away with it here then they can get away with elsewhere."
Tim Nesbitt, president of the Oregon AFL-CIO who attended the rally, called CleanPak's action "a vicious attack on living wages, pensions and health benefits that cannot go unanswered."
Sheet Metal Workers Local 16 has represented workers at the plant since the mid-1970s, when it was locally-owned by Brod McClung. The company employed more than 250 workers, all of whom earned a living wage complemented by health insurance benefits and a decent pension package.
In 1994, Sinko Kingyo of Japan bought the business and started making clean room equipment for the high-tech industry. The company experienced record profits in 1996 and 1997, but early in 1998 - with the labor agreement soon to expire - CleanPak began laying off longtime employees in total disregard of seniority language in the collective bargaining agreement.
When negotiations began later that year, the union was met at the bargaining table by known union-buster Tom Triplett, who immediately demanded huge wage cuts, riddance of the union-sponsored pension plan, and a gutting of seniority language.
The old contract expired March 1, 1998, and employees worked without one until the strike began July 9 - when CleanPak unilaterally implemented its proposal with all the aforementioned takeaways. And even though union workers continued to be laid off during negotiations, CleanPak bought "Help Wanted" ads in local newspapers, Local 16 said.
To a man, the strikers believe that forcing a strike was the company's plan from the get-go. "They brought in a new personnel manager and she started to clean house of anyone she didn't like or who made too much noise," Maplethorpe said.
Before he was laid off, Maplethorpe was told that he didn't possess "a viable skill" even though he was a department head for many years. "There's only a few jobs I haven't done in there," he told the Northwest Labor Press. "I made decisions for workers in three different departments. This personnel manager wasn't there when I worked. She doesn't know what I can or cannot do."
Propper had 25 years with the company and was earning $17 an hour when he received his pink slip and the announcement that his wages would be cut to $8 an hour. "I put my life in this company. I hurt my back, I screwed up my hands, and then I get laid off," he said.
Some of the strikers have found temporary jobs to help make ends meet and a few have crossed over and gone back to work. But most of their employers (CleanPak included) don't pay a living wage. In most cases they make $10 an hour or less, the union said.
Alegrete, a five-year employee, said that without his in-laws he would be on the street. Last year he couldn't afford to buy Christmas or birthday presents for his grandchildren or children.
Phillips, a nine-year employee, sold a car to help pay some bills and now drives a rig that needs a ton of work. His wife is disabled, so he and his children qualify for many taxpayer-subsidized social service programs.
Maplethorpe has lost his house, his wife "and just about everything I own," he said.
And still, the company has its hand in his pocket.
After being laid off, Maplethorpe filed for unemployment insurance. The company appealed, claiming that he was involved in a labor dispute and, therefore not eligible for weekly benefits.
However, when a decertification election was filed in March 1999 and Maplethorpe cast his ballot for the union, the company challenged his vote, insisting that he wasn't an employee.
In fact, CleanPak challenged 65 of the 125 ballots cast, claiming votes by strikers should be ineligible because they had "no reasonable expectation" to return to work.
A National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) administrative law judge from Arizona was called in to sort it out. After a five-day hearing in April 1999 the judge allowed 41 of the challenged ballots, giving the union a 56-45 victory. CleanPak appealed that decision to the full board in Washington, D.C., where Local 16 is still awaiting a ruling.
"The decision by the regional NLRB judge was made in June 1999 and we haven't heard anything since," said Local 16 Business Representative Mike Smith. "I wish I knew (when a ruling will be made)."
At the unity rally, "one day longer" was the rallying cry among striking union members and Local 16. Members of the larger labor movement vowed to fight with them every step of the way.
Local 16 Business Manager Stan Bjorklund commended the union members still walking the picket line and his international union for its continued support. "We really appreciate this strong showing from labor. It shows that other people care," he said.
Local 16 is turning up the heat on CleanPak. In addition to unity rallies and barbecues they periodically handbill managers' homes, alert CleanPak customers and vendors of the labor dispute, and arrange for traveling picket lines at construction sites at high-tech plants where clean rooms are being delivered.
Among the speakers at the unity rally were Nesbitt; Northwest Oregon Labor Council Executive Secretary-Treasurer Judy O'Connor; Columbia-Pacific Building and Construction Trades Executive Secretary Wally Mehrens, and Milwaukie Mayor Carolyn Tomei.
Tomei, whose son is a member of the Teamsters Union, thanked the Sheet Metal Workers for their fight. "You're speaking for all of us," she said.
Mehrens probably said it best though, stating: "President Clinton told us last night (in his State of the Union address) that this is the largest, longest economic expansion in the history of the United States ... yet we still have to put up with companies like this."
Contributions to the strike fund can be made through Sheet Metal Workers Local 16, 2379 NE 178th Ave., Suite 16, Portland, Ore. 97230-5957.
To walk the picket line, CleanPak is located at 11241 SE Hwy. 212 in Clackamas. Take the Highway 212 exit off I-205.
© Oregon Labor Press Publishing Co. Inc.