October 6, 2006 Volume 107 Number 19

Richmond Baking workers approve first union contract

McMINNVILLE, Ore. — Workers at a small industrial bakery here approved their first-ever union contract Sept. 26 — nine months after they voted to join Local 114 of the Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers International Union (BCTGM).

The bakery, one of three owned by Richmond Baking, produces organic cookies and crackers, cracker meal, and batter mixes for the wholesale market.

Unionizing meant dignity, improved safety and a pay raise for the 11 employees. It also takes pressure off union workers at a larger facility in Indiana.

Terry Lansing, secretary-treasurer of Local 114, said BCTGM represents over 100 workers at a Richmond Baking facility in Richmond, Indiana. The company has been family-owned since 1902, and the Indiana plant has been union for generations. But the latest generation of company owners decided to try to “whipsaw” the union in contract negotiations last year, suggesting production would be shifted to nonunion bakeries in McMinnville and Alma, Georgia, if the union didn’t make concessions.

It turned out that the McMinnville workers were eager to organize, thanks in part to a history of verbal abuse from the local manager.

Richmond quality control worker Dena Ochoa was engaged to marry co-worker Darren Thomas, who had been a Bakery Union member earlier. They decided to give the union a call, and met with Lansing and other staff to plan a campaign.

While low wages, safety concerns and job security were concerns, Lansing said the biggest issue was how they were treated by the plant manager — always feeling their jobs were in jeopardy, and having to listen to how the manager talked to them and other workers.

On Dec. 27, 2005, Richmond workers filed a petition with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) requesting a union election. Later that day, after the NLRB notified the company by FAX, the Richmond manager called Ochoa at home and fired her over the phone. Ochoa was hosting a union meeting when she took the manager’s call, and she put the call on speaker phone so she’d have witnesses.

Local 114 immediately mounted a legal defense, filing a charge the next day with the NLRB, the federal agency supposed to guard workers’ right to unionize if they choose to do so. The charge said Ochoa was fired because of her legally-protected union activity. Local 114 also got her a job at another union bakery — Orowheat.

The NLRB set a March 1 date for a union election, and the campaign heated up. The day before the election, Local 114 filed another charge with the NLRB, saying management was continuing to break the law in its anti-union campaign. According to the union, Richmond interrogated employees about the union campaign and threatened the loss of raises.

Workers went ahead with their election, voting 6-2 to unionize March 1, 2006. A day later, the company told workers they weren’t allowed to leave their work areas anymore because they’d voted in a union, and went back on a promise to promote an employee who was believed to have supported the union.

BCTGM representative Eric Anderson led a full-day steward training for all the workers. They needed to know their rights.

The election result, however, meant the company was legally obligated to recognize the union and to bargain a contract.

Workers filed a detailed safety grievance with the company, ranging from railings on the catwalks to guardrails on platforms on top of silos where workers changed filter screens. Richmond responded, and fixed numerous problems, Lansing said.

After five months, Richmond Baking settled the NLRB charges. While not admitting guilt, the company agreed Aug. 29 to post a notice promising not to do what it had been accused of, and to award Dena Ochoa (now Dena Thomas) $6,000 in back pay. She waived her right to reinstatement.

After 11 bargaining sessions and the assistance of a federal mediator, the two sides reached agreement Sept. 23 on a first union contract. The pact contains immediate hourly raises of between 50 cents and $1.75, and 25 cent annual raises thereafter; workers make $9 to $10 an hour. It also includes a grievance procedure, overtime pay after 10 straight hours, safety protections, holiday, vacation and bereavement leave, seniority rights for layoff and recall, job bidding, vacation selection procedures, pension provisions, continuation of medical coverage while on medical leave, and limits on the use of temporary employees — temps become permanent if they work 60 days in four months. And it has “just cause” protection — meaning employees can’t be disciplined arbitrarily — management has to document violations of specific rules, and has to follow reasonable rules before issuing discipline.

“It’s better — working with a union,” said Mario Aldaco, lead sanitation worker on swing shift. “You feel protected,”

Thomas left Orowheat for personal medical reasons, but hopes to return. She credits the union for the defense, and for the feeling of empowerment co-workers felt.

Local 114 represents 1,050 workers employed at Orowheat and Franz bakeries, Williams Bakery in Eugene, the Kroger and Safeway bakeries, and in-store bakeries in Safeway, Fred Meyer, Albertsons stores.

Lansing says the union encourages shoppers to buy union-baked goods. As for workers in nonunion bakeries: “They should give us a call,” Lansing said.

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