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Here’s Why We Need Employee Free Choice
Date 08/12/12/15:11
Here’s Why We Need Employee Free Choice

MARCY REIN, A RETIRED member of Office and Professional Employees (OPEIU) Local 29 who worked in the ILWU Organizing Department for most of the Blue Diamond campaign, describes how the Blue Diamond workers’ years-long effort to gain a union recently ended with a loss. Rein also vividly describes how that experience demonstrates yet again why we need passage of the Employee Free Choice Act.

For four years, the workers on the Organizing Committee at the Blue Diamond Growers (BDG) plant in Sacramento, Calif., had done everything they could to avoid being where they were on the night of Nov. 19. They campaigned hard for a free and fair choice on whether to join the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU). But there they were watching the vote count at the end of an election supervised by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) run under the same old broken rules.

They stood around in the huge bare room where the election had taken place, in a cold storage building that doubles as the site of the annual Thanksgiving turkey giveaway. Sounds bounced off the concrete floor and disappeared on the way to the 40-foot ceiling—sighs, a stray cell phone quickly squelched, a hiccup of distress.

From the moment the NLRB agent started counting the ballots, one “Yes” for the union followed by four “No” votes, it looked like the vote was going south. The final tally, 142 for the union to 353 against, only proved what the workers and the ILWU staff already knew: Only the rare union drive can survive the steady pounding of all-out union-busting that always comes before an election, and only changes to labor law will make the freedom to organize real. Randy Reyes, a forklift driver with 11 years at BDG, described it this way:

Management knows which people to pick on, like a predator trying to slam the people. Their tactics put fear in people’s minds and break the essence of their spirits. If the Employee Free Choice Act passes, it would eliminate 99.9 percent of the companies’ strong-arm tactics.

Randy and his co-workers do the work in the largest almond processing plant in the world. When they began organizing in September 2004, the sorters and packers—the largest and lowest-paid group of workers in the plant—had seen only $2 per hour in raises since 1990. Seasonal workers with as much as 38 years’ seniority didn’t qualify for paid time off because they didn’t log enough hours in a year even though they had more than 30 years of service. Carpal tunnel and other injuries were as common as dust in the plant. Many supervisors dished out daily disrespect and rudeness.

At the time, committee member Tanya Monarque said:

We have a body and a mind and a mouth to speak, and they treat us like equipment.

The workers won some improvements with their organizing. BDG has given raises every year since 2005 and cut the hours needed to qualify for benefits.

But the company unleashed the beast of fear as soon as the organizing began to gather steam. In early 2005, management carpet-bombed the plant with fliers. Supervisors interrogated workers about their feelings for the union, threatened that they could lose their pensions or their jobs if they unionized. Two veteran workers got fired on trumped-up charges.

An administrative law judge found Blue Diamond guilty of 20 labor law violations in March 2006, and ordered the company to re-hire two fired workers. BDG complied with the order, but never admitted wrongdoing.

Organizing committee members worked with the ILWU to build a wide network of support—including international backing—for their freedom to join a union and stepped up and spoke out for the Employee Free Choice Act. They testified at the Sacramento City Council, the California Legislature and at the first hearings on the Employee Free Choice Act in the 2007 session of Congress. They roused crowds at rallies, put their feet in the street at marches and lent their faces to the AFL-CIO’s newspaper ad campaign.

The Sacramento City Council and several political and community leaders got behind the workers’ push for a “free and fair election” last year. They urged Blue Diamond to promise not to harass and threaten workers, to let the workers hear both sides and to let them vote in a school or a church instead of at the plant.

Blue Diamond blew them off just like they blew off the new Roman Catholic bishop of Sacramento, the Most Rev. Jaime Soto, and the hundreds of students from the Chicano/a student group MEChA who rallied at the plant in March 2008.

Last spring, the organizing committee went ahead and began asking their co-workers to sign union cards. In September, the ILWU asked the NLRB to run an election.

Blue Diamond hired four union-busters to work at the plant 24/7 even before the union had the official list of eligible voters. (Labor law requires employers to give the union a list of voters—but they don’t have to turn it over until 10 days after the NLRB sets the date for the vote.)

The busters tag-teamed with 50 supervisors and leads. They pulled workers in for one-on-one meetings—or meetings where workers were outnumbered two or three to one. They roamed the plant during work hours. Eugene Esparza, a lift truck driver with 38 years at the plant, tells how it worked:

They criss-crossed up and down talking to people while they were working. They harped on union dues and strikes, strikes and dues.

Anti-union fliers warned that people could lose wages, benefits and popular work rules because “everything is negotiable.” Union opponents said that growers could leave the cooperative. The threats fanned fears fuel by the economy’s free-fall in October.

“We were seeing lots of layoffs on the news, layoffs all over,” said Margie Bince, who works in BDG’s Test Room.

What the opposition didn’t do with threats it tried to do with ridicule. It passed out fliers comparing the ILWU to the “Roach Motel” (“You can check in but you can’t check out”) and to a sneaky monkey.

Bince said:

I told our lead that had to stop. That’s for little kids, calling people names. We’re grown women here.

Anti-union workers plastered the walls inside the plant with “Vote No” leaflets. Those came down as soon as the organizing committee asked to post “Vote Yes” messages.

The days before the vote brought both sides out in front of the plant. Chants bounced back and forth.

“No union! No union!” the anti-union workers hollered. “Union, union go away, we don’t need you anyway!”

“Si, se puede!” union supporters yelled. “Union yes!”

Well-liked supervisors came out of retirement to greet people going home the day before the vote. They leafleted and joked and hugged, all grandmotherly; one even took to pinching the guys’ cheeks.

The honks of approval for the anti-union message made it hard to be optimistic. The vote next day showed that fear had indeed won over hope, for now.

After the vote, the ILWU announced that it would file objections with the NLRB, because the union believes Blue Diamond’s union-busting broke the law once again.

As soon as the NLRB agent called the result of the election, Organizing Committee member Cesario Aguirre turned to the people standing around him.

Before we started this campaign, we were just faces to each other. Now we know who we are, and we have a lot more skills. When the Employee Free Choice Act becomes law, we will have more tools to work with. We just have to open more eyes.

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