It Can't Happen Here?
by David Bacon
SAN LEANDRO, CA (4/9/97) - Imagine, if you will, the next mayor's election in San Francisco.
A couple of months before election day, the incumbent begins organizing meetings in every neighborhood. Residents are required by law to attend, and only the mayor is permitted to speak. His honor tells a dire tale that if he is not elected, the city will go broke. No one is allowed to look at the city's finances. He shows videos of street riots, and falsely accuses his opponent of fomenting violence.
In every precinct, political operatives visit each voter, offering property tax breaks to those on the fence. They tell opposition activists that they will evict them and drive them from the city if they persist. Just to make sure the threat is taken seriously, it happens to a few of them.
In the meantime, the opposition candidate can't appear on the streets. The police post a guard at the Daly City limit and on the bridges, where they vidoetape supporters passing out leaflets, creating a dossier on each person who takes one.
The mayor knows exactly who is eligible to vote, but he gives a list to his opponent which omits many names, and includes others taken from headstones in the city cemetary. Newspapers and television warn of a wave of impending evictions should the mayor lose. There's no opposition media.
A few weeks before the election, hundreds of people are given temporary residence permits, and told that permission to live in the city can be revoked at any time. The election commission begins an investigation, but doesn't reach any conclusions until months after the voting is over. The only penalty it can impose, in any case, is another election, while the mayor stays in office the whole time.
On election day the mayor wins.
Outrageous? Couldn't happen here?
It does, many times a year. This is the playing field workers face when they try to organize a union in a factory, a hotel, or any other private sector workplace.
It is analagous to the playing field faced by workers who voted in the election at the Mediacopy plant in San Leandro on March 24. If you've rented a video of a first-run movie recently, Mediacopy workers probably produced the cassette in this or another of the company's factories.
Last January, the vast majority of its 700 workers signed union cards, after ninety-nine people were arrested and deported by the Immigration and Naturalization Service. Workers were outraged that managers had herded hundreds of them into the plant cafeteria, where the Border Patrol was waiting for them.
One worker reported that a supervisor even went looking for people hiding among the machines, and turned over a woman crying because she was afraid she would be taken from her children. "In the cafeteria, I heard someone cry out, 'let my family know,' as she was taken away," remembers Mercedes Sanchez, another Mediacopy worker.
Within a week, the company hired a union-busting consultant, Strategic Human Relations Services, to mastermind an anti-union campaign. A newly-hired public relations consultant, Bill Barnes, offered reporters stage-managed tours of the factory.
Meanwhile, workers were forced to attend meetings in the plant during work hours (the legal term, appropriately, is "captive-audience meetings). There they were shown videos of violent strikes. "We were told that the company would never sign a contract," remembers one worker, who didn't want to be identified for fear of retaliation. "Then they told us they would replace us if there was a strike. They wanted us to feel our jobs were at risk."
Company supervisors met with workers in private, one-on-one sessions for two months before the union election. According to Alfredo Flotte, an organizer for Local 6 of the International Longshoremen's and Warehousemen's Union, some workers received pay raises of over $2/hour in a plant where wages hover near $5-6.
Starting last December, Mediacopy told over a hundred employees that they had to reapply for their jobs with a local temporary agency, United Core Staff. Barnes confirmed that some had over two years at the plant. The agencies would send them back to their old jobs, but no longer as Mediacopy employees. As temps, they could lose their job any time the agency decided not to send them to work.
Under Federal law, Mediacopy had to provide a list of its employees eligible to vote in the election. The names of the workers sent to the agency were omitted. When they came to the polls anyway, the company challenged their right to vote.
In late February, a month before the election, Mediacopy told workers that it had been asked by the INS to reverify the immigration status of another 140 workers. Barnes refused to provide a copy of the INS request, and so far, the INS won't confirm that it actually made one.
When at least 70 workers couldn't come up with new documents, according to Barnes, some left voluntarily and others were fired.
The INS has a policy, Revised Operations Instruction 287.3a, which notes that "there is no prohibition against enforcing the Immigration and Nationality Act, even when there may be a labor dispute in progress." But the policy lays down a series of precautions against relying on information "provided tothe Service to retaliate against employees for exercising their employment rights."
The purpose of the instruction is to avoid situations in which employers use immigration raids and other enforcement actions to break a union effort by deporting and threatening its own workers. If the INS actually did ask Mediacopy to demand documents from 140 workers just weeks before a union election, its action provided a pretext for the company to fire, or force from the workplace, at least 70 workers who had the right to vote under U.S. labor law.
While this intense campaign was taking place inside the factory, union organizers had no access to the plant at all. They and their supporters had to stand at the gate, passing out leaflets to workers going in and out. Guards watched carefully, and photographed them on at least one occasion.
The union went to the NLRB, charging the company with violating workers' rights. Board investigators are still taking statements, and a hearing won't take place for months. If a hearing officer finds that workers were terminated illegally, there are no fines for the company. The maximum penalty is the payment of back wages, minus any money the worker might receive in the interim from unemployment or another job. There isn't even a backpay obligation for firing undocumented workers.
The election was finally held on March 24. Not surprisingly, 306 people voted against the union. Despite the lopsided odds, 197 people voted in the union's favor. 130 votes were challenged. When the status of those votes is finally resolved, and they are counted, the union will file charges to have the election invalidated if it loses. If the NLRB finds that the election was marked by illegal intimidation, it will simply order another one, and the whole process will repeat itself.
This is a grim, but real, picture of the legal road to joining a union. It's no wonder that at the Rubberstampede factory in Oakland, just a few miles away, workers found another route to a union contract. This company's immigrant workforce also had the same election nightmare a year ago, losing their vote to join the same union.
But six months later, the implementation of a piece-rate, speedup system convinced them to walk out on strike, including some who had voted for the company. After four months, they achieved what the legal process denied them - a union contract.
Rubberstampede's owner, Sam Katzen, eventually fired the anti-union consultant who advised a scorched-earth fight against his own workers. When he signed the contract, Katzen announced that "I expect the union and the company are going to work together well."
At Mediacopy, the company's fight against the union, with its legacy of bitterness and fear, is likely to last for a long, long time.
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