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Labor Update: Divide And Conquer

matewan.jpg

It’s a lazy summer, but for some reason I’ve been incredibly busy, so this is a good time to update some stories we’ve been following.

If you’ve seen the movie Matewan, the 1987 John Sayles movie the 1920’s organizing battles in the West Virginia coal fields, you’ll recall how the coal company tried to discourage the workers from organizing together by hiring only African Americans and Italians as strikebreakers. (If you haven’t seen Matewan, go rent or buy it as soon as you finish reading this.) Well the Battle of Blair Mountain in the town of Matewan may have occurred more than 85 years ago, but management’s tactics haven’t changed, especially in today’s union organizing wars in North Carolina’s Smithfield Packing company.

I’ve already written about how Smithfield has succeeded in illegally defeating the union in two elections and how a federal court recently found that Smithfield Packing Company had repeatedly broken the law in fighting the United Food and Commercial Workers union’s (UFCW) attempt to organize its pork-processing plant Washington Post reporter Darryl Fears published an article yesterday showing Smithfield continues to fan racial tensions and how the UFCW is fighting them. According to Marshall Ganz, a lecturer at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government. "The tension is as old as the hills."

"Who were the most violently anti-Chinese in San Francisco? The Irish. They felt their jobs were threatened." Ganz said it is no surprise that workers complained of Smithfield playing blacks and Latino against each other. In congressional testimony, court records and interviews, black employees said they were told that Latino hires were cheaper, while Latinos claimed they were told black people would replace them if they were deported. "Employers have played that game forever," Ganz said. "It’s kind of what unions have to overcome."

***

Once upon a time, most Smithfield employees were black. But as the new century dawned, that changed. Now 47 percent of workers are Latino, compared with about 38 percent black, Smithfield officials said. Nearly all of the top supervisors are white. The kill floor is mostly filled with black employees, and the staff on the cutting line is mostly Latinos.

The union is organizing potlucks and other events to bring African American and Hispanic workers together, to show them that they’re dealing with the same issues:

When she finished eating dinner at the party, Lenora Bruce Bailey sat for a spell on a little wood porch facing Main Street. Two years ago, she had one of the best jobs around: boxing scraps of hog meat at the nearby packing plant. Then she got sick. "They terminated me," she said. "Took away my health insurance." In a nearby room, Raphael Abrego held up his purple and swollen right hand and wondered whether the same might happen to him. He was one of the better cutters on the fast-moving butcher line, but he slipped one day and injured his hand. "I can’t close it," he said in Spanish, trying to clench bloated fingers. Bailey is a black, native-born American. Abrego is a Latino immigrant. At Smithfield Packing Co., the largest meat-processing facility in the world, the two think of themselves as being in the same boat.

The company, of course, insists that it continues to act in good faith and is calling for yet another election. The union says it won’t be fooled again, and is calling on Smithfield to recognize the union if a majority of workers sign cards indicating that they want union representation:

Do not believe everything workers say, said company spokesman Dennis Pittman.

***

"We are anxious to let our employees make the decision," said Pittman, who is spearheading a campaign to polish Smithfield’s image. But Gene Bruskin, the union’s campaign director for Smithfield, said the marketing plan is a trick that feels like deja vu. After the 1994 election, "they said they had changed and invited us to hold the ’97 election," he said. "What followed were 150 unfair labor violations, according to the NLRB, and 10 more years of intimidating workers."

Meanwhile, the Wall St. Journal (paid subscription) has an update of the story I wrote last week about the National Labor Relations Board’s pending decision that could take away bargaining rights for nurses and millions of other workers. Anticipating the decision, unions are attempting to negotiate contract language guaranteeing the right to organize no matter how the NLRB rules.

Since April, the Health Professionals and Allied Employees union has signed contracts with nine New Jersey hospitals that guarantee the union status of 8,000 workers, regardless of the NLRB decisions. The hospitals agreed to "not assert or challenge the supervisor or nonsupervisory status" of any bargaining-unit members. Linda Wilson, a spokeswoman for Virtua Health, a health-care system in Marlton, N.J., said Virtua agreed not to challenge the status of any employees represented by HPAE over the course of the three-year contract because "it did not affect our ability to function appropriately and it does have an expiration date." Ann Twomey, president of HPAE, which represents 11,000 workers who are mostly nurses, said she believes the contract language protects up to 40% of the union’s members who perform scheduling duties some of the time.

In Vermont, the Vermont Federation of Nurses and Health Professionals reached a three-year contract this month with Fletcher Allen Health Care System in Burlington, Vt., stipulating that 1,500 unionized nurses won’t be considered supervisors "as defined or may be defined by the National Labor Relations Board."

Mike Noble, a spokesman for Fletcher Allen, said it agreed to the language because it "has no plans to challenge the supervisory status of any of the bargaining-unit employees during the term of this agreement." He added Fletcher Allen will review the coming NLRB decisions "and determine an appropriate reaction at that time."

Meanwhile, some employers are already starting to reclassify workers as supervisors who would be ineligable to join a union.

Aquarion Operating Services Co., a water-management-services company in Auburn, N.H., filed an NLRB petition in March to exclude eight maintenance foremen at a Bridgeport, Conn., location from a bargaining unit represented by the Teamsters, arguing the workers are supervisors. A judge ruled this month that three of those foremen are supervisors but five aren’t.

Natale Di Natale, a lawyer for Aquarion, said the company’s move wasn’t prompted by the pending NLRB decisions. However, the company is expected to appeal the ruling affecting the five foremen not classified as supervisors after an NLRB decision, which likely would favor the company’s position.

Teamsters local 145 in Stratford, Conn., which represents the workers, expects to appeal the classification of three foremen as supervisors. In a recent labor dispute, Virginia Mason Medical Center in Seattle questioned the union status of 600 nurses, and noted the definition of who was covered was under active discussion, referring to the pending NLRB cases. "We are going to watch and listen and let the NLRB make the determination," said Sarah Patterson, hospital administrator at Virginia Mason. Deborah Frye, director of labor relations for the Washington State Nurses Association, said she believes the hospital will challenge the union status of workers and has signaled its intent to do so.

And, of course, some workers don’t care about being supervisors as much as they care about losing their rights:

Some labor advocates argue workers, especially nurses, will leave the field if they lose their union-negotiated benefits and protections.

Some workers, themselves, say they would give up responsibilities overseeing others’ work in order to remain in the union. "If it meant the difference of being able to be in the union and have my union benefits and my contract, I would choose to stay with the union," said Cyndy Chan, a 35-year-old sheet-metal worker in Portland, Ore.

Finally, check here for a hilarious analysis of the whole problem by Stephan Colbert.

Jordan Barab blogs at Confined Space

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