By COLIN STAUB
Production workers at door manufacturer Pacific Architectural Wood Products have requested a union election to show there’s majority support for a new union, Millworkers United, an affiliate of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW).
The union drive was set in motion over after-work beers. When their shifts end at the Northeast Portland production facility, a group of workers sometimes go out to The Lucky House, a bar on nearby Halsey Street. During one visit six months ago, the conversation turned to complaints about work: The shop’s minimum wage is $18, raises are unpredictable, and workers say outdated equipment has sparked safety concerns.
“I don’t even remember who, but someone says, ‘See, this is why we need a union,’” recalls Alex Amen, a machine operator who has worked at the plant for two years.
Over the next couple days Amen kept thinking about the remark, and he asked his coworkers whether they were serious. They were. Amen searched online and found a video of a United Autoworkers organizer explaining how union cards work.
The more they learned, the more Amen and his coworkers felt it was something they could do. They got in touch with the Portland IWW chapter for advice, and decided to affiliate with IWW.
Amen filed a union petition with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) on Sept. 12, covering all 42 workers. They make doors meant for commercial use, including fire-rated doors. Workers cut and assemble the different parts of the door, then use a glue press to add a veneer to it. A sizing machine cuts the door to specification, then a machine operator cuts grooves for hinges and locks. In the end, the door is packaged for shipping. Three trucks a week deliver the doors to buyers in Washington, Oregon and California.
Union supporters say the company provides a good health plan and 401(k) match. But they say the wages are low for what they produce. Amen estimates he sometimes machines $100,000 worth of doors in a day, and he makes $20 per hour.
When management showed up at work the day after the NLRB filing, almost every worker was wearing a union button. A week later, a letter signed by general manager Dennis Bryant and director of operations Larry Grove went out to all workers, with standard anti-union talking points.
“We have a special culture at [Pacific Architectural Wood Products], and that culture will be greatly changed by bringing a union into our organization,” the letter reads.
Management hired the anti-union management-side law firm Bullard Law.
By the end of the week, workers found anti-union literature attached to their paychecks. It suggested positive aspects of the job would be up in the air with union representation. Leaving early to handle a personal emergency? Getting short-notice vacation leave approved? Being promoted based on merit and hard work? None of these can be guaranteed with a union, management wrote. (Of course, they can’t be guaranteed without a union either, which is typically why workers become interested in a binding union contract.)
The NLRB has set an in-person election for Oct. 26 at the shop. In the meantime, the company is holding anti-union meetings each Monday, according to a notice workers shared with the Labor Press.
Amen says workers have adopted the anti-union Bingo card approach they learned from the IBEW Local 48 organizing campaign at lighting supplier Schoolhouse Electric. Before the meetings, they study the card, which features common anti-union talking points like “the union is a third party,” and afterwards they see how many points the boss brought up.
“We almost got a Bingo,” Amen said after the first meeting. “I got four out of five in two different directions.”