UNITE’s Current Campaign


When
attempting to form or join unions, workers, especially workers of
color, face almost insurmountable challenges. If they complain or
speak-up, they are harassed, fired, bullied into quitting and, in
many cases, blacklisted. The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB)
is the federal body designated to protect workers’ rights and
ensure impartiality between employer and employee, but it rarely
lives up to its mandate. Many feel that the NLRB has actually functioned
to defer, delay, and sometimes even block workers’ rights,
in spite of its stated goals. 

Under
such bleak conditions, and after four years of the Bush administration’s
attacks on working families, can we project an alternative vision
of building labor and community power that challenges the NLRB to
live up to its mandate of protecting workers’ rights? Can AFL-CIO
unions and their rank and file members embrace issues immediately
apparent to union members and live up to their potential as a force
for social change? Can organizations and coalitions draw attention
to the NLRB’s failure, agitate complicit NLRB bureaucrats and
recalcitrant employers, and create victories for working people
based on labor and community solidarity and power? Can changes be
made to the existing NLRB, enabling it to better live up to its
mandate of protecting workers rights? 

The
current national campaign by UNITE-HERE (North America’s laundry,
apparel, and hospitality workers’ union) to organize Angelica
Corporation, the largest health care laundry services company in
the United States, provides a perfect example of how these questions
can be answered. 

The
NLRB: A Failure 

Founded
in 1935 as part of the National Labor Relations Act, the NLRB’s
purpose “is to encourage the process of collective bargaining.”
But, according to Fred Feinstein, General Council to the NLRB and
its chief prosecutor during the Clinton administration, the NLRB
“is simply broken in fundamental ways.” 

In
fact, the NLRB is so flawed “unions avoid utilizing its processes
when possible and are looking for new and different processes that
are far more fair,” said Feinstein. According to Feinstein,
the current system of secret ballot elections supervised by the
NLRB is “framed as a contest between the union and the employer…placed
in the context of a political election,” where both sides have
equal access. But the current process “distorts the fact that
they are not equal entities.” Secret ballot elections don’t
work because “employers have complete control of the process
and the workplace, where the company exerts economic control over
the work force. 

“The
employer can campaign everywhere, wherever, whenever it wants. The
employer can compel the employee to listen” to anti-union propaganda.
And it is “perfectly legal for the employer to ‘predict’
all forms of dire economic consequences if a union is voted in,”
said Feinstein. 

On
the other hand, “Employees are restricted. The union can’t
get on the work site. The union can compel nothing. No one can consider
this a fair process.” 

The
WRB: An Alternative 

On
May 27, 1993, in an attempt to draw national attention to the NLRB’s
failure, JWJ organized a National Day of Action against the NLRB
which included sit-ins and protests that shut down NLRB offices
in 26 cities across the country. More than 10,000 people participated
and 1,000 were arrested. 

After
the protests, JWJ and unions involved in the NLRB actions decided
to establish an alternative structure to advocate for workers’
rights, especially the right to organize. They agreed that a formal
body, to not only hear workers complaints, but also to act on those
complaints, was needed as an alternative to the NLRB. As a result,
they formed the Workers Rights Boards (WRB). 

WRBs
can’t take cases directly to the NLRB or its local appendages,
but it can directly influence employee grievances, wrongful terminations,
and union organizing campaigns. By utilizing moral and political
persuasion and threatening widespread public exposure against recalcitrant
employers, which the NLRB isn’t designed to do, WRBs create
labor and community powered employer accountability, instead of
bureaucratic dependence on antiquated laws. In other words, WRB
members are able to use personal authority and community status
to mobilize support for and intervene on behalf of workers. 

WRB
members include alder- persons, state representatives, ministers,
priests, rabbis, other religious leaders, organizers, activists,
academics, intellectuals, and celebrities. WRB members emphasize
that workers’ rights are civil rights, not just a matter of
concern for labor unions, but for the community as a whole. According
to JWJ, workers, after all, aren’t just workers. They are neighbors,
members of the community, people of faith, students, taxpayers,
caregivers, and family members. Attacks on workers’ rights
are also attacks on the stability and well-being of neighborhoods,
religious communities, schools, universities, and families.

Angelica,
OSHA, & NLRB 

Miguel
Flores, a Mexican American from Houston, Texas, sits across the
table at the local UNITE-HERE office. He was flown into St. Louis,
Missouri to speak at a rally outside of Angelica’s corporate
headquarters. Flores was fired from Angelica Corporation last spring
for joining UNITE- HERE and actively participating in the organizing
campaign. “The campaign started on a Friday. The following
Monday, Angelica suspended me. And by that Friday I was fired,”
Flores said. According to UNITE-HERE, Angelica has 3,000 laundry
service employees nationally, about 2,000 of which are in the union. 

“When
the campaign started, the company was in a frenzy,” Flores
continued. “They began holding captive audience meetings and
speaking out against the union. Then they began promising better
benefits. They said, ‘We can resolve our problems together.’
‘We don’t need a union’.” Flores spoke up at
a captive audience meeting. Later that day, management asked him
to sign a letter stating that he had “thrown a laundry basket
down a ramp.” Flores refused and was then suspended for three
days. When he returned to work he was fired. 

“They
focus on money and production. But they should be focused on the
workers. Our insurance is too expensive. We work ten to twelve hours
one day and then two to three hours the next, so they don’t
have to pay us overtime. Single mothers can’t get time off
to take care of their children. Angelica is extremely abusive to
its workers,” Flores added. 

While
wages and benefits are a major concern, safe working conditions
are probably the most important. “We handle extremely dirty
linens,” Flores said. “We handle diaper cloths, linen
with blood clots, and needles.” Flores said he had to quickly
sort through numerous 200 pound bags “straight from the hospitals.
Many bags still had blood, guts, body fluids, and different blood
borne diseases. We could get hepatitis or HIV.” This process
is called “soil sort.” “It used to take ten to twelve
people to handle all the bags of linen. Now Angelica expects five
to six people to do the job of twelve.” 

The
Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has found Angelica
guilty of numerous health and safety violations. On August 31, OSHA
issued citations to Angelica’s Batavia, New York plant for
dozens of job safety and health standard violations and proposed
penalties exceeding $140,000 against the company. Earlier in the
year, OSHA proposed nearly $64,000 in fines at two Angelica plants
in California. To date federal and state OSHA agencies have proposed
fines of over $300,000 for Angelica’s health and safety violations. 

OSHA
has also charged Angelica with “willful violation,” its
most stringent citation. In some cases, work surfaces were visibly
contaminated with blood and other potentially infectious materials.
According to OSHA, “soiled laundry was thrown and/or placed
on the walking surface on the soil sort conveyer line. Employees
routinely stepped in feces or other human waste as a result…”
OSHA also charges Angelica with not having a written cleaning schedule,
leaving surfaces to be cleaned sporadically, if at all. 

Nationally,
UNITE-HERE has filed over 70 unfair labor practice charges with
the NLRB, charging Angelica with threatening plant closures, withholding
information, spying on workers, and suspending or terminating pro-union
workers. While unfair labor practice charges have had some impact,
the NLRB doesn’t actively campaign for workers’ rights
and since the Bush administration’s appointment of three members
to the NLRB’s five member board, this situation has become
much worse. 

A
WRB Hearing 

On
September 22, in St. Louis, Jobs With Justice held its second national
WRB hearing. The hearing was in support of the Angelica workers.
UNITE-HERE members from six different Angelica work sites gave testimony
on health and safety concerns, labor law violations, union busting,
and the failure of the NLRB. 

Yvonne
Wolcott, from Batavia, New York, said, “We have lots of health
and safety issues within our plant…. In our soil department one
of the biggest problems is ‘power dumping’ when they unload
dirty linen at such a speed that the soil workers can’t keep
up and the bins overflow and dirty linen, soaked with blood and
other body fluids, starts to pile up on the floor….” 

Nery
Jimenez, from Durham, North Carolina, said, “When we started
organizing a union, management responded with forced meetings, intimidation,
and more pressure. We have filed 15 charges with the NLRB. We demand
that Angelica respect our right to organize under a fair and neutral
process.” 

Lourdez
Perez, from Phoenix, Arizona, said, “I hear Angelica is prepared
to spend $1 million to break our union drive…. Why don’t
they use that money to give us a raise? Why don’t they use
it to assure a safer work place?” 

Vicki
Calabrese, from Lorain, Ohio, said, “Several years ago we had
an NLRB election. Before the election, Angelica tried to win votes
by telling the workers that if they vote against the union they
would get a wage increase…. But the majority of us still voted
for the union and we won the election.” 

“When
it was time to negotiate our union contract,” Calbrese continued,
“Angelica used unfair tactics by delaying the negotiations
process…. In an NLRB election the company has the upper hand.
The company can delay the negotiations process even after workers
win the election, and during the campaign the company has time to
discourage and intimidate workers…” 

While
the national JWJ-WRB hearing did not have an immediate impact on
the UNITE-HERE campaign, in many other ways it was a success. The
WRB hearing empowered workers and built labor and community solidarity
with UNITE- HERE members, put pressure on Angelica to do the right
thing, gained media attention for the ongoing campaign, and raised
awareness of the NLRB’s failure to protect workers rights. 

According
to Margarida Jorge, a JWJ activist, the WRB hearing also accomplished
another very important victory. “It clearly illustrated that
we are not going to accept the failure of the system as our failure.
We’re not giving up.” 

In
recent years the AFL-CIO has placed renewed energy, emphasis, and
money on organizing the unorganized, recruiting new union members,
building rank and file participation in the labor movement and solidifying
labor and community based coalitions. In fact, many unions and community
groups who have traditionally seen their roles as mutually independent
and sometimes antagonistic, are beginning to work together, opening
up and cooperating on local and national levels like never before.
However, the AFL-CIO’s vision seems limited to issues immediately
apparent to union members, rather than as a catalyst for building
long-term social change. 

While
JWJ-WRBs provide the vision and forward-thinking needed to project
an alternative vision of labor and community power that challenges
the NLRB’s complicity, more is needed. 

Card
check neutrality and the Employee Free Choice Act should be a key
part of any effort to fundamentally change NLRB processes. By challenging
the NLRB to live up to its mandate and by projecting an alternative
vision of labor and community solidarity and power, through WRBs,
we can build strength based on democracy and workers’ rights,
rather than dependence based on NLRB bureaucrats. Vision, potential,
and knack for agitation focused on immediate worker demands and
long-term social change enables WRBs to act as an alternative to
the NLRB. 

In
many ways, WRBs are changing the rules of the game by changing the
consequences for employers who violate the law.
 


Tony Pecinovsky
lives and works in St. Louis, Missouri. He has organized with the
Teamsters union and SEIU and is a member of the Newspaper Guild.