By Don McIntosh
For Rory Gatto, the road to the Teamsters started with a splinter. Gatto works swing shift at the colossal Columbia Sportswear warehouse in industrial North Portland, one of about 400 workers who process Columbia’s foreign-made apparel for shipping throughout the Western United States.
In the summer of 2015, just months into the job, he was handling a stack of pallets when a wood splinter pierced his shirt and punctured the skin on his abdomen. Gatto went to the first-aid kit near his work station, and found it empty. Downstairs in another work area, the first-aid kit there was empty too. So, afraid of being gone too long from his station, he dabbed the wound with a wet paper towel and got back to work.
Within days, the puncture was red, swollen, and painful. Not yet enrolled in company insurance, he visited a free clinic in Vancouver, where a doctor diagnosed a staph infection, drained the wound, and prescribed oral antibiotics.
Returning to work, Gatto decided to take a look at first-aid kits around the warehouse.
“Most were either completely empty or had a few pieces of something here or there,” he remembers. He talked to his supervisor about it and was told to take it up with the safety committee. Attending safety committee meetings, he asked that first-aid kits be resupplied.
“They kept pooh-poohing it, and pushing it off, and saying, ‘whose cost center is it?’”
When no one would take responsibility for it, Gatto offered to be the one to refill band-aids. Nothing happened. For a safety meeting attended by Jeanette Williams, then Columbia Sportswear operations manager, he developed and put forward a Powerpoint presentation proposing a schedule for checking and restocking the kits. Objections were raised: Who would pay for it? What if employees steal band-aids? Neither Williams nor anyone else would take action.
After months of trying to get first-aid kits restocked, Gatto stopped trying. But he knew something was wrong. How could a company where a cloud-based warehouse management system tracks every article of clothing be unable to keep band-aids in stock for injured employees? Why would a company that thanked workers for record productivity every quarter be unwilling to attend to something so small?
The failed band-aid crusade opened Gatto’s eyes, and he started talking with co-workers about what he was seeing.
What it’s like to work there
None of them had any problem with the work itself. But beyond that, there were many complaints. With little or no climate control or insulation, the 182,860-square-foot metal box they work in is like a refrigerator in winter, and parts can be stiflingly hot in the summer. Frequent last-minute schedule changes wreak havoc on employees’ personal lives. Workers also have no say over major changes: Managers recently eliminated the top of a pay scale, and changed the workweek from four 10-hour shifts to five eight-hour shifts. Workers are subject to computer-tracked performance goals, contributing to a high-pressure environment—for some pretty low wages. Wages that range from the legal minimum wage to just under $20 an hour aren’t enough in the Portland metro area, where median rent on a one-bedroom apartment is now $1,234 a month.
Clearly, Columbia Sportswear knows wages are too low: Signs in the break room direct workers to a phone number where they can access the Oregon Food Bank. And the company sponsors employee donation drives several times a year in which workers donate to help co-workers who can’t afford school supplies and Christmas presents for their families.
By the summer of 2019, Gatto and some of his co-workers were ready to act. Gatto called Teamsters Local 162, one of several Portland-area Teamsters locals that represents warehouse workers, asking for help.
It wasn’t the first time the union had heard from workers there, says Local 162 President Mark Davison. Pay, benefits, and working conditions at the Columbia Sportswear distribution center are far below local union standards for the thousands of warehouse workers represented by the locals that make up Teamsters Joint Council 37. But a union isn’t something outsiders can win for you; workers themselves must become active, form an organizing committee, and mount a campaign in the workplace. Columbia warehouse workers never seemed ready for that before, Davison said. This time, things were different.
A group of workers formed, began to meet, and created a community via Discord, a text chat channel originally developed for gamers. They got to know each other, and started spreading the word. Seeing that readiness, Local 162 asked the international union for support. Experienced union organizers arrived in Portland to support the campaign.
The union-busters arrive
On Oct. 1, Alonzo Plater, Columbia Sportswear vice president of global distribution, called an all-employee meeting for each shift.
“We’ve started to hear some rumors about conversations with the Teamsters Union,” Plater told the assembled workers, in one of several recordings made by workers who attended.
“One of the things I love about our culture is that we’re so open and we’re flexible,” said Plater, who was by then reading from some notes. “A third party coming in between us here at Columbia is not what I feel we need. We will be engaging some external consulting resources to come on site this week to talk to you,” Plater said. “These consultants are longtime union experts.”
Within days, consultants from The Crossroads Group (TCG) of San Clemente, California, were giving presentations, which every worker on all three shifts was scheduled to attend. Presentations took place in front of groups of 15 to 20 and lasted up to two hours.
“We frequently run into the Crossroads folks,” said Thom McKibben, the Teamsters organizer assigned to help Columbia workers organize. “But it’s unusual for a company to bring them in so early, before we’d even really gone public or announced a campaign.”
Crossroads Group charges
$375 an hour plus expenses for its services, according to federally required disclosure forms. [UPDATE 1/7/20: Crossroads charged Columbia $400 an hour.] That means the consultants most likely earned more at each meeting than the 15 or 20 warehouse workers combined.
What was the magic of their message? Judging by the accounts of workers who attended, it was the same anti-union boilerplate trotted out in nearly every union-busting campaign: The union is an outside third party that can’t promise anything except collecting your dues; unionizing will destroy the nice open relations workers have heretofore enjoyed with managers; wages could go up in bargaining, but they could also go down.
But union-buster Steven A. Beyer brought his own brand of charm, several workers said. If workers choose to unionize, Columbia Sportswear won’t “play nice,” Beyer said. Beyer was once friends with Cesar Chavez, he told workers. At one point, Beyer wandered around chanting “Union Bad” in an area of the warehouse where mostly limited-English workers put clothing on hangers, attach anti-theft devices, and change price stickers.
Beyer used to be a union leader himself, he told workers, but left after he came to the realization that unions are just another business, mainly interested in dues. Back in 1992, the Los Angeles Times told the story of his exit from the labor movement a little differently. Beyer, the Times reported, was voted out as president of HERE Local 681 in Anaheim after he became too cozy with employers, showed insensitivity to Spanish-speaking members, and fired a union rep who was raped on the job.
After about three weeks, Columbia Sportswear’s outside anti-union consultants departed. But the workers’ union campaign continued.
March on the boss
On Dec. 4 at 2:25 p.m., 13 Columbia employees wearing yellow-on-blue Teamsters Local 162 T-shirts marched into Plater’s office. A two-and-a-half minute video documenting the visit can be seen at the union’s Tougher Together Facebook page, launched the same day (named for Columbia’s long-running “One Tough Mother” ad campaign.) In the video, workers find the office door open, and standing in the doorway chatting with Plater is Jeanette Williams, the Columbia exec who Gatto couldn’t persuade to restock first-aid kits. Since then, Williams had been promoted to Columbia Director of Distribution.
“Do you mind if we have a moment of you guys’ time?” Gatto asks.
“Well, we’re kind of busy,” Williams replies.
“Is that a yes, or a no?” Gatto asks.
“That’s pretty much a ‘no,’” Plater responds, “but I think you can schedule an appointment to actually come and talk to us.”
Warehouse worker Ivan Mikhaylov then hands Plater a petition signed by 47 co-workers, and Gatto explains what it’s about: They want a union, and they want the company to stop trying to bust it.
“They were hating what we were doing,” Mikhaylov told the Labor Press later. “The look they gave us: It was almost like they were despising us.”
“We are a very responsible company,” Plater told the workers in his office. “Your documents will be reviewed and responded to.”
“I was very nervous,” Mikhaylov told the Labor Press about the visit. “But the closer we got to the door, the calmer I got. When it was done, it was like a huge weight had been lifted. We were done. The campaign had started.”
A visit from CEO Tim Boyle
Soon after workers visited Plater, it was announced that Columbia Sportswear CEO Tim Boyle would be coming to the warehouse at 2 p.m. Dec. 19 to speak to workers.
For most of the warehouse employees, it would be the first time they’d ever set eyes on Boyle, whose net worth Forbes magazine estimates at $2.7 billion. For his role as CEO of the company that his grandfather bought and his father and mother ran, Boyle took $3.3 million in compensation in 2018, 130 times the company’s median salary, according to SEC disclosures.
With employees assembled in the break room, another senior manager warmed up the crowd for Boyle, announcing to cheers that “super-large” fans will be installed in two areas, and that the company is developing a new “safety academy.”
Boyle’s speech was short, just two minutes. “I don’t get a chance to get here very often,” he said, in an audio recording shared with the Labor Press. “All I can say is, thank you very much. Your hard work is much appreciated, and you guys rock.”
“I’m happy to answer any question about any topic,” Boyle said. The questions came. The first few were innocuous. Then came one that sent a murmur out among employees. Boyle repeated the question: “When somebody says union, what do I think?”
“Well, the company has had unions in the past,” Boyle said. “We had a union in our sewing facility we had here in Portland, and we had a union in our distribution center in the past.
“I think unions have a place. I am a union member. I’m a member of the Screen Actors Guild. [Workers laughed, but it’s true: Boyle had to join in order to perform in Columbia television ads, like the one where his mother put him through a car wash to show the toughness of a jacket.]
“I think personally you don’t need a union here,” Boyle continued. “We have relationships. There’s places where it’s appropriate. I don’t believe it’s appropriate.”
Next, a worker asked what Boyle thought about the fact that his warehouse employees are going to food banks because they don’t make enough money. Judging by his answer, Boyle was pretty unprepared for the question.
“That bothers me, honestly,” the billionaire began. Boyle had two suggestions for those employees: invest in their 401(k)s, and go to college.
“We have to run a business that’s competitive with others,” Boyle explained. If the business is profitable, the stock price goes up. And Columbia employees are stockholders, if they’re investing in their 401(k)s, which “I hope everybody is here,” Boyle said (to warehouse employees his company pays less than $20 an hour.)
The other path out of poverty, Boyle seemed to suggest, was for warehouse workers to get educations so they could come back as white collar workers at headquarters.
“Hopefully we’re working here to get employees in this population into the other parts of the business where wages are higher, doing other categories of work,” Boyle told warehouse workers. “We want to make sure that people have the opportunity to get a better salary and a better wage.”
Another worker wanted to know if Trump’s tariff trade war with China was hurting the company.
“We’ve moved a lot of production out of China in the last 10 years, primarily because China’s an expensive place to work these days. There are other countries in the world where we can produce products more competitively. We have to constantly be working on that.”
After 20 minutes of questions, Boyle was gone.
“To me it gave the impression that he doesn’t really care that much,” Mikhaylov said. “It almost seemed like he wasn’t really concerned.”
Of course, Rory Gatto got that impression the moment he found all those empty first-aid stations. But there’s always hope. Four years after his battle for band-aids, Gatto discovered first-aid kits restocked throughout the Columbia warehouse … right after a surprise visit Oct. 30 from an Oregon OSHA inspector.
To get the company’s official public position on the union campaign, the Labor Press reached out to Mary Ellen Glynn, Columbia’s director of corporate communications. Glynn said the company would have no comment.
“This is going to be a battle,” said Davison. “But we committed to these employees that we’re not going to walk away. We’re going to stand by them.”
For a brief moment, Columbia Sportswear was union and American made
Gert Boyle, the public face of Columbia Sportswear since the 1980s, died Nov. 3 at age 95. Political and business leaders lauded Boyle for her philanthropy and business success. But Nita Brueggeman remembers her as a business owner who fought the union, reneged on a union agreement, and closed her factory after workers voted to stick with their union.
Brueggeman was head of the Pacific Northwest Joint Board of Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers Union (ACTWU) in the 1980s, representing clothing and textile workers in Oregon and Washington. In August 1982, workers at Columbia Sportswear’s St. John’s apparel factory joined ACTWU. After lengthy bargaining, the two sides reached agreement, and workers voted to ratify it. Then Gert Boyle arrived on the scene and repudiated the agreement.
“I’d never seen that happen before,” Brueggeman says.
Workers responded by going on strike in July 1983. When they later made an unconditional offer to return to work, Gert wouldn’t take them back. The two sides eventually signed a three-year agreement. But Boyle immediately started looking for a cheaper alternative, Brueggeman recalls. She looked into using Oregon prison inmates to make clothes, but that didn’t pan out. In 1984, Columbia began to move production to South Korea and Taiwan.
“I attempted many times to sort of make nice with her,” Brueggeman says. “But all those ads about her being ‘one tough mother’? That’s who she was, and she didn’t give a damn about the people who worked for her. As soon as we got a contract she started getting rid of the workers.”
In August 1985, Columbia closed the St. John’s apparel factory, and laid off 85 workers, most of them refugee women from Cambodia and Vietnam. By then only 25-30% of the company’s apparel was made in Portland.
“What it boils down to is that the American consumer doesn’t really care where it’s made,” Tim Boyle told The Oregonian at the time.
Even as it was ending the livelihoods of its Portland manufacturing workers, Columbia was already cheating the U.S. Customs Department. In 1991, Columbia Sportswear and its manufacturing vice president were indicted on 114 counts of import smuggling and conspiracy, in a case the U.S. Attorney’s office described as a “long-term, massive and deliberate scheme to defraud the government.” The case—which followed a five-year Customs investigation and raids on company offices and a warehouse—included charges that Columbia had undervalued goods and falsified documents to evade quota restrictions on clothing it imported from South Korea and Taiwan. The company faced up to $57 million in fines, but settled voluntarily in 1993, pleading guilty to a felony charge of conspiring to avoid paying import duties and paying $970,000 in fines, duties and restitution.