Beleaguered workers at Boydstun Metal vote for Local 16

By DON McINTOSH, Associate Editor

Work conditions are grim at Boydstun Metal Works. Under any circumstances, manufacturing auto transport trailers would be loud, hard work. But at Boydstun's industrial site at the west end of Portland's North Columbia Boulevard, the company makes things much worse, according to Roger Olson and other workers. Bullied by management, employees work at high speed, with mandatory overtime, in sometimes unsafe conditions, for low pay with minimal benefits.

And it's been getting worse. Wages, which average $12 to $14 an hour, have been frozen for a year and a half. Recently the company cancelled a monthly bonus for good attendance and ended a policy of buying work clothes and boots for six-month employees.

Workers supply their own tools. And there are no seniority rights. But then, because of astronomical turnover, there's very little seniority. Olson says it's considered impressive among the workers to last a year.

"Most people don't want to work for this kind of money in these conditions," he said.

Boydstun workers - overwhelmingly immigrants from Vietnam, Africa, Ukraine, Korea, Cuba and Mexico - speak multiple languages. But they manage to communicate, in what Olson jokingly refers to as "the Boydstun dialect." This year the Boydstun dialect added a new word - Union.

On June 23, workers voted 51 to 45 to join Sheet Metal Workers Local 16. Company owner Robert Boydstun challenged eight of the votes, saying some employees who voted weren't eligible, and the dispute is being resolved by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), which has until Sept. 23 to make a decision, which the union expects will be in its favor. That would make it four months since the union began its campaign.

"We got a call in May from several workers interested in a better way of life," said Willy Myers, organizer for Local 16. Myers said the union helped form an organizing committee of Boydstun workers, and got other members of the Sheet Metal Workers to help. Don Freeman, a former business manager of Local 16 who's now an international union West Coast director of organizing, assigned three staff people from the international.

Altogether 27 people were involved, said Local 16 Business Representative Del Brown, some working seven days a week for two months.

"It's been tough on these guys," Brown said, "but they believe in it."

Above all, Brown stressed the importance of the union's Volunteer Organizing Committee to the campaign. "I've been impressed by how much the Sheet Metal Workers have done for us," Olson said. "They have stood behind us in everything we've done."

Told he had pressured others to sign union cards, Olson was made to sign a "last-chance agreement" prohibiting him from talking about the union at any time on company property, even on his lunch break. Myers says this action was plainly illegal, and the union has filed a complaint with the NLRB.

When contract negotiations begin, there will be plenty to discuss. Boydstun has some medical benefits, and paid vacation after one year. But there's no employer contribution or match in the 401(k) plan, and no other pension is offered.

Also likely to be discussed is occupational safety and health. Olson said he's bothered by safety conditions at the factory - employees weld outside in the rain, and breathe in aluminum smoke from the plasma machine. In July, a three-pound hammer fell from a ladder he was moving and hit him on the head. He was unhurt, but it damaged his welding helmet.

The union appears to have caught the company just as it was about to embark on a hiring spree. Boydstun recently won a large order from Swift, the nation's third-largest publicly-traded truckload carrier. Where two months ago there were 112 employees, now there are an estimated 200.

Olson says company managers have argued Boydstun "can't afford a union." He says they're missing the point. "It's true that we want more money," Olson said. "But more than that, it's the respect issue. We want our dignity. We want to be treated better."

September 6, 2002 issue

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