February 6, 2009 Volume 110 Number 3

Campaign at Oregon bakery shows need for Employee Free Choice Act

As organized labor prepares to battle in the nation’s capital for a long-sought labor-law reform, the story of a year-and-a-half-long union campaign at a mid-sized Lake Oswego bakery shows why reform is necessary.

The Employee Free Choice Act — the union movement’s number one priority in Congress — would make it easier for workers to obtain union representation and a first contract.

In short, the law would get rid of the danger, delay and uncertainty that kill most union campaigns when an employer is determined to resist them.

Eighteen months ago, union organizer Georgene Barragan took a job at Breadsong Bakery, a specialty bakery in Lake Oswego, to try to unionize the workers. Breadsong, a unit of a subsidiary of agribusiness giant Cargill, employs about 30 production workers at about $11.25 an hour. Some of its bread is sold under brand-names that are otherwise baked by members of Bakery, Confectionery Tobacco Workers & Grain Millers Local 114. The union wanted to prevent members’ work from slipping away to a nonunion shop — and give the non-union workers a chance to earn the significantly higher union wage and benefit package — $19.80 an hour and fully paid family health insurance coverage.

Barragan approached co-workers one by one, and by September, a majority had signed cards saying they wanted to be represented by Local 114. Under the Employee Free Choice Act, that would have been enough for them to get a union. But under current law, employers don’t have to accept that method of showing majority support, and can insist on an election. That usually means up to six weeks during which managers and outside consultants mount a full-court press to talk workers out of unionizing.

That’s what happened at Breadsong. The union filed for an election Nov. 7, and a date was set — Dec. 19, 2007. Union organizers will recognize what followed as a textbook case of the standard anti-union playbook — a set of proven tactics that employers have developed over decades to defeat union campaigns.

Managers called in workers one by one and interrogated them about the union campaign. Almost daily mandatory meetings were held, at which managers showed anti-union propaganda videos and handed out fliers warning workers about the dues they’d have to pay. And 12 days before the election, they fired Barragan — the most outspoken union supporter.

The union cried foul, and filed charges with the National Labor Relations Board, asking that the election be postponed. The federal agency agreed with the union that the law had been violated, and put off the election. An NLRB agent brokered an out-of-court settlement with the company. Barragan was reinstated June 24, 2008. A few months after that, a new date for the election was set — Oct. 10, 2008.

But in the three weeks prior to the second scheduled election, the employer offensive ramped up again, says Local 114 Secretary-Treasurer Terry Lansing. Over a period of two weeks, the company held seven mandatory meetings at which company managers, corporate lawyers and the general manager spoke against the union. The company issued an annual wage increase to workers at other nonunion locations, but told Breadsong workers they couldn’t have it because of the union campaign — and that they might not get a raise for a year if they vote the union in.

Workers were told they wouldn’t be able to participate in the company stock ownership plan if they unionized. They were told, falsely, that dues would start coming out of their checks as soon as the union was voted in. Company representatives asked workers to air grievances, and promised to do better.

One grievance about payroll handling was fixed on the spot.

At a final meeting, two days before the election, the company general manager Dave Thurston told workers that a vote for the union would be interpreted as a vote of no confidence in the well-liked local plant manager, Lou Flores. Flores’ job might be on the line, in other words.

According to several witness affidavits, Flores then pleaded for his salvation in the meeting, and publicly addressed two employees he had just hired: “Both of you guys asked me for a chance … now I’m asking you for a chance. Please, guys, vote no for the union.”

“That changed the entire vote,” said Lansing. “Now you’re no longer voting on whether or not you want to be represented. Now you’re voting on the fate of another human being.”

On election day, in a majority-immigrant workplace, a known pro-union employee was called into the office and informed that his green card had expired; he was sent home until he could fix the problem.

When the vote was counted, it was 17-10 against unionization.

How does a majority on cards become a minority on ballots? Partly through legal methods, and partly through illegal methods.

Again the union filed charges, listing nine separate objections to the employer’s conduct, and arguing that Cargill’s violations of the law poisoned the atmosphere and made the results invalid. An agent investigated and made a determination.

Required attendance at almost-daily anti-union harangues? Legal.

But blaming the union for the company’s decision not to give raises — and remedying a grievance right before the election? Those crossed the line, the NLRB found. The election was nullified, and a new one set — for Feb. 12.

Will Breadsong workers decide to join the Bakers Union? We’ll find out. But one thing is certain: If the Employee Free Choice Act had been the law of the land, this group of 30 would now be more than a year into their first union contract, earning something closer to the union standard. Under the Employee Free Choice Act, workers would unionize as soon as a majority sign cards. Employers would be deterred from violating workers’ rights by stiffer penalties. And if the two sides can’t agree in four months, a neutral arbitrator can impose a fair first-time contract.

“We don’t spend our members money frivolously,” Lansing said. “We look at each case and ask, first of all, ‘Can it go union?’ and secondly, ‘can the employer afford to pay a decent wage?’ If we feel those things can happen, then we will do everything we can to help those workers. We feel that Cargill can afford a decent wage.”

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