At a large industrial bakery in Gresham, an intensive anti-union blitz by company management turned a pro-union majority into an overwhelming “no” vote in just 24 days.
When Bakers Local 114 filed Jan. 11 for a union election, 102 of the 167 workers at Portland Specialty Baking had signed cards saying they wanted a union. By the time the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) conducted an election on Feb. 4, just 38 voted for the union, and 123 voted against.
Local 114 officials and AFL-CIO union organizers were very surprised by the result, and struggled to figure out what happened.
“We blindsided the company when we filed, then we got blindsided three weeks later,” said Local 114 secretary-treasurer Terry Lansing.
In the week before the election, 75 workers had signed a “vote yes” petition. But Portland Specialty Baking used every advantage at its disposal, starting with access to workers.
The company brought in a professional union-buster from Illinois, who led presentations at the beginning of nearly every shift, for two weeks. Workers were then called in one by one for individual meetings with two or three managers at a time, and most workers were called in multiple times. Lansing says Local 114 plans to file charges with the NLRB accusing the company of breaking federal labor law in those meetings — interrogating workers about their views on the union, promising (and making) improvements to wages and schedules in order to buy support, and threatening that those improvements would vanish if the union won.
If company managers neglected workers before, after the surprise arrival of the union, they turned on the charm. For the first time, company communications were translated into workers’ own languages. A manager no one liked disappeared from the plant without explanation. An unpopular supervisor was transferred to a different production line. An open door policy was announced, in which workers could tell company president Josh Richardson about their concerns. Some workers got raises.
Meanwhile, the company aggressively curtailed union access to the workers. Not only were union organizers not allowed into the plant to talk to workers, but they were ordered off the property. The plant is located in a corporate industrial park between Sandy Boulevard and I-84. For about a week after the union campaign went public, union organizers would show up to leaflet and talk to workers. But Richardson, the company president, repeatedly confronted them and called the police. On Jan. 22, Gresham police arrested lead organizer Trent Leon-Lierman and booked him on charges of second degree criminal trespass. On arraignment, the Multnomah County District Attorney’s office declined to press charges, but Leon-Lierman’s arrest was the last time organizers showed up on site — two weeks before the election.
And union efforts to get workers to meet outside the workplace were frustrated by a sudden ramp-up in hours. Workers were ordered to work 60 hour weeks. On the day a union meeting was scheduled, some were called in to work an extra shift.
There were other factors contributing to the union loss.
Portland Specialty Baking’s workforce is overwhelmingly comprised of immigrants and refugees, divided into pockets of different nationalities and language groups. NLRB election notices, for example, were translated into Arabic, Burmese, Chukkese, Khmer, Laotian, Nepalese, Russian, Spanish, and Vietnamese. Within each language group, line foremen tended to be the most senior leaders, and they formed the core of the company’s anti-union effort. Leon-Lierman thinks those supervisors may have proved decisive in appealing to workers to give the company a chance to improve.
Lastly, very few of the Portland Specialty Baking workers had any prior experience with unions before. Wages at other unionized bakeries in the Portland area are approximately double the wages at Portland Specialty Baking, which hover around $10 an hour.
Franz Bakery’s role
Lansing said it’s unclear what role, if any, unionized Franz Bakery played in the campaign. Portland Specialty Baking makes pretzels, cakes, donuts, bagels, and muffins, but not under its own label; it’s a contract baker making products for Franz, Starbucks, Safeway, Costco and Winco. Portland Specialty Baking uses machines purchased from Franz. And the industrial park where it’s located is owned by a holding company that lists current and former Franz executives as principal officers.
I asked [the company president], ‘Have you been inside the homes of your workers and seen their children huddled in their coats because they can’t afford heat? We have.’” — Bakers Local 114 president Terry Lansing
[/pullquote]Lansing appealed to Franz president Marc Albers to urge Portland Specialty Baking to remain neutral and meet face to face. Albers did get Richardson to meet with the union. The half-hour-long informal meeting took place Jan. 28 at the union office — between Richardson and his attorney Jackie Damm of Bullard Law, and Lansing and John Price, the Bakers union’s international director of organization.
“It was an honest attempt by us to go forward positively rather than have an adversarial fight,” Lansing says of the meeting. “We asked for the company to be neutral and respect workers’ desire to be union.”
Lansing asked if Richardson would allow a union representative on site so that employees could hear both sides. Richardson said no.
“I asked him, ‘Have you been inside the homes of your workers and seen their children huddled in their coats because they can’t afford heat? We have.’”
Richardson’s response, Lansing says, was to tell the story of an employee who was grateful to got a job at Portland Specialty Baking after being out of work for years.
Why unions prefer card check
The union reversal at Portland Specialty Baking illustrates the difference between a “card check” process — which unions favor — and a secret ballot union election. Under federal labor law, employers must recognize and bargain with a union if the majority of workers want to be union-represented. Unions can demonstrate that majority support by presenting signed authorization cards from workers, in a process known as card check, but it’s up the employer whether to accept that method or not. Employers who want to fight a union invariably insist on a secret ballot election overseen by the NLRB, because it gives them time to campaign against the union. In short: Portland Specialty Baking could legally have recognized the union based on the cards signed by its workers — and gotten busy negotiating a first contract. Instead it fought an extraordinarily one-sided battle against the union – in that management had nonstop access to workers, while union organizers weren’t even allowed on the property.
Despite the loss, Lansing and Leon-Lierman say the union will continue to engage with workers at the plant, and could try again in the future if worker opinion shifts.
“We’re certainly not walking away. That wouldn’t send a good message, nor would it be the right thing to do,” said lead organizer Trent Leon-Lierman.
Richardson declined to return calls from the Labor Press.