May 1, 2009 Volume 110 Number 9

DePaul workers learn how hard it is to unionize

By DON McINTOSH, Associate Editor

Before April 2008, Frito-Lay snack packs sold in local stores were put together by unionized workers earning $16.96 an hour, plus health, retirement, and vacation benefits. Then the unionized Frito-Lay bakery in Vancouver, Washington outsourced its variety pack assembly line. As many as 30 positions were eliminated. Leaders of Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers (BCTGM) Local 364 thought maybe they should find out where the work went, to see if workers would want to join the union.

Frito-Lay managers wouldn’t tell them where the chips were going, but the company’s Teamsters-represented drivers would — they were being trucked to a non-descript warehouse in a Hayden Island industrial park just off I-5, with a sign for “DePaul Industries” on the front door.

DePaul Industries is registered as a non-profit charity. Started in 1972 as a sheltered workshop for people with disabilities, today it describes itself as “the Northwest’s most comprehensive outsourcing specialist.” DePaul has 500 employees and earns $20 million a year — tax-exempt — selling security services, staffing services, manufacturing and assembly, document imaging, and food and consumer goods packaging to companies and government agencies.

DePaul Industries employee Jeffrey Taylor was on break in the parking lot when BCTGM International Representative Eric Anderson drove by the Hayden Island plant in late August. Anderson introduced himself as a union organizer and handed him a business card.

“What took you guys so long?” Taylor asked.

Taylor had learned from a Frito-Lay manager sent to train DePaul assembly line workers that outsourcing to DePaul was saving Frito-Lay a lot of money: $8-an-hour DePaul packers had replaced Frito-Lay’s $17-an-hour union workers.

The Frito-Lay union wages sounded a lot better to Taylor, 43, who earned $13 an hour as a machine operator. Plus, Taylor — who is black — was still smoldering over the company’s response to his complaints about racist pranks: The month before, Taylor said, a supervisor had thrown a noose at him, and another yelled out that he sold crack cocaine. The two had been scolded, but nothing more.

Taylor called Anderson, who put him in touch with Local 364 President Cameron Taylor (no relation) and Executive Board member Joe Crane. Crane, 28, is the kind of union member who puts the “movement” back into the labor movement — a workplace steward, bargaining committee member, and in his free time, a volunteer union organizer.

To spark a union drive, Taylor turned out to be an ideal first contact: He was the one who drove the company van to pick up workers at the Jantzen Beach Mall bus stop. That gave him a chance to talk about the union away from the eyes of company managers. Workers would fill out union authorization cards on the way to work. The campaign spread rapidly as other workers got involved.

One was Claudel Pierre, 41. Pierre had been a political activist in Haiti until a coup made that a dangerous occupation. Now he was a $12-an-hour quality assurance inspector at DePaul. He saw the union as a chance to win human rights on the job.

Pierre’s job required walking around and interacting with other workers, so talking about the union wouldn’t immediately attract management attention.

To sign up the plant’s many Spanish speakers, Pierre and Taylor recruited another quality control worker — Priscilla Perez. Perez, a well-liked 18-year-old of Cuban and Puerto Rican descent, was six months into the job, her first. She liked the job, but was bothered by what she described to the Labor Press as management favoritism. And she had felt wronged when a supervisor wouldn’t grant her a day off to attend a court hearing determining her guardianship of her 14-year-old sister.

With Taylor, Pierre and Perez signing up co-workers and passing out union authorization cards, the break room became a hotbed of union recruitment. So did Taylor’s car, parked out back along a windowless wall. Within two weeks, over 100 of the approximately 130 workers had signed cards saying they wanted to join BCTGM.

The union was an easy sell. DePaul’s charitable mission may be to provide employment opportunity, but the supposed recipients of that charity — its employees — sure had a lot of complaints. And not just about low wages and bare-bones benefits. According to six current and former workers interviewed for this article, managers showed favoritism toward some and verbally abused others. The office area was air conditioned, but workers packaging products for Frito-Lay, Tazo Tea, and Starbucks would sometimes faint from exhaustion on the hot and poorly ventilated shop floor. The assembly line moved so fast that Frito-Lay’s own managers at one point asked that it be slowed down. Forklifts raced around, with no taped-off “safe” areas. One worker was hospitalized when a forklift ran over his foot. And on top of that, workers faced termination without warning for trivial offenses.

Taylor, Pierre, and Perez tried to use caution, talking to workers they knew, getting signatures while on break. But when one co-worker told Perez she wouldn’t sign the union card, and would have to talk with a supervisor about it, Perez knew her cover was blown. A team leader friendly to Perez told her to be careful, warning that she’d be fired if she was caught collecting union signatures.

Soon after, a manager accosted Perez and demanded to know what the signature campaign was about. Perez, frightened, told her to talk to Pierre. Pierre told her he was signing up co-workers for a martial arts class he planned to teach.

The manager began appearing in the break room, watching workers, trying to make small talk in English with foreign-born assembly line workers who couldn’t speak the language.

Then a whole shift of workers who’d signed union cards was transferred to another location. New workers were brought in to replace them.

A week after her exchange with the manager, Perez was the first of the union supporters to be fired. Managers wouldn’t tell her why, she says.

Pierre was next. According to his version of events, the same manager who had talked to Perez told him he was being disciplined — for failing to complete a scale calibration report. He protested: He had done the report, and he tried to show her. Told she was going to discipline him anyway, Pierre pulled out a cell phone and took a picture of the scale readout, which he felt proved he’d done the work. The manager told him it was against company policy to take pictures, and demanded he hand over the phone. Pierre refused, and tried to leave the building. He said two managers then pushed him into an office and blocked the door, one of them spitting out a profanity and using a racial epithet. Pierre pushed his way out. A visit to the human resources department the following day confirmed he had been fired.

Other firings followed. Billy Francois, 19, signed a union card on break and was fired that day without explanation, after seven months without incident. So was Pierre’s ex-wife Clarinate Vilson.

The firings took place the week before what was supposed to be the big union meeting. Several dozen DePaul workers turned up at the North Portland Carpenters Hall, but Crane said the fear was pervasive.

“It may be the worst job in the world,” Crane said, “but it’s not like the people working there have so many other opportunities.”

The union campaign was for all intents and purposes dead, except that it had an echo in a pair of unfair labor practice charges — the bureaucratic term for violations of the National Labor Relations Act, the 1935 law that established U.S. workers right to unionize. An agent of the National Labor Relations Board looked into whether the DePaul firings had been meant to kill the union campaign. Pierre’s story was said to be compelling, but DePaul management swore that receiving notification of the unfair labor practice charge was the first they’d heard of any union activity. And if they didn’t know there was a union campaign, they couldn’t really have fired workers for taking part in it, could they?

All the fired workers believe they were terminated for supporting the union, but they couldn’t prove that, or even that management knew of the union. The unfair labor practice charges were dropped.

“The word ‘union’ didn’t even come out of my mouth after that,” Taylor said. Taylor said he’d had no disciplinary problems before. But once the union drive died, he says he was hassled constantly for petty violations of company policy, each mention of which made it into his personnel file. A gold necklace with a New York Giants ring would sometimes tumble out of his shirt, and that violated company policy against wearing loose jewelry. He spent too much time in the bathroom, managers said.

Taylor lasted until March 3, when a manager suspended him on accusation of taking pictures with his cell phone. His phone doesn’t have a camera, he told the manager. Still, he had a phone in his hand in a work area, came the company’s retort: He must have been goofing off. Taylor was on lunch break when the incident occurred, he says. He was fired anyway.

In an interview with the Labor Press, DePaul CEO David Shaffer wouldn’t discuss particulars of the firings, but said workers are sometimes fired when they violate company rules. “Are employees terminated? Yes, they are,” Shaffer said, “just like in any other company where an employee violates a particular policy.”

Shaffer said he stands by DePaul’s mission — providing employment opportunities to people with disabilities, so they can move on and become contributors to society.

“If we can bring people in, have them gain some work skills, develop a work history and then get employment elsewhere where there are higher wage opportunities, that’s A-okay with us,” Schaffer said.

Pierre is still out of work. So is Francois. Perez enrolled in Job Corps. Taylor is mulling his legal options, including a possible civil lawsuit.

In the last year, national business groups like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce have aired millions of dollars worth of television ads showing a fictional union organizer who knocks on a worker’s door and intimidates him into signing a union card. Nothing could be further from the reality DePaul workers experienced. There, the union organizer was a fellow worker, Crane, who would meet with them on weekends and before and after his shifts at Frito-Lay. DePaul workers had plenty of reason to unionize, but their campaign fizzled when the promoters were fired.

The business ad campaign is meant to prevent the Employee Free Choice Act from passing in Congress. The Employee Free Choice Act would rewrite the nation’s labor law to make it easier for workers to unionize and get a first union contract.

If the Employee Free Choice Act had been the law last year, the cards that DePaul workers signed would have been enough to get them their union, and management would have had to negotiate a decent first contract — or have one imposed on them in binding arbitration. Employers would think twice about firing workers for supporting a union drive, because under the Employee Free Choice Act they would face fines of up to $20,000 per violation, plus triple back pay. There are no fines in the current law, only reinstatement with back pay — minus whatever wages workers earned elsewhere after they were fired.

If it passes, Crane says, the union will be back for a second try at DePaul.

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