Pt. Richmond Workers Find Organizing a Union is Like a War
by David Bacon
PT. RICHMOND, CA (3/27/98) -- Sabrina Giles went to work seven years ago, keeping track of huge shipping containers moving in and out of the Burlington Northern/Santa Fe Railway yard in Pt. Richmond. Over the years, she trained one worker after another in the difficult art of tracking the million-dollar cargoes shipped by giant corporations - C&H Sugar, United Parcel Service, even the U.S. Post Office.
But while others moved up to better jobs and higher pay, she stayed in one place, watching her wages inch slowly from $8 to $9.50 an hour. The people she saw moving ahead were mostly white, she says, usually friends or relatives of supervisors. To Giles, an African-American woman, "this yard was full of favoritism, racism and sexism."
Lorena Sagastume, also employed for over seven years at the facility, started out in the company office. "But then they told me that I had to go work outside in the yard, that they didn't want me talking to their customers because I spoke with an accent," she says.
Last fall, complaints like these led the yard's workers to organize a union. And for the first time since the San Francisco General Strike of 1934, the Bay Area's longshore union agreed to expand its ranks to welcome a new bargaining unit of people who don't work on the docks themselves.
"We're trying to adjust to the new reality that if unions don't organize, we won't survive," says Larry Thibeaux, past president of Longshore Local 10 of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union.
But instead of winning better conditions, today most of the Pt. Richmond facility's 101 workers are sitting at home. They've come up against what seems to be a new unwritten law - companies running the newest side of the shipping business are determined to do so "union-free."
Railroads and shipping companies have only built terminals like the one in Pt. Richmond in the last 15 years. Called intermodal yards, they're the high-tech heart of the transportation industry, and are located near the docks, where huge cranes load and unload shipping containers from giant freighters. From the ship, containers are trucked to the yards, where they're put on trains moving out across the country.
Although dockworkers themselves are organized, as are crews on the trains, unions are very scarce in vast hubs in between.
These days, that's where the jobs are.
But although the Pt. Richmond workers load and unload shipping containers from Burlington Northern Santa Fe trains, in a yard owned by the company, they don't actually work for the railroad. Instead, the BNSF yard was operated by a contractor, Pacific Rail Services, which runs 29 other terminals under similar arrangements.
When Giles, Sagastume and their coworkers filed a petition for a union election, Pacific Rail began saying the railroad would cancel its contract if the union won. Robert Kirchgessner, area manager for PRS, wrote workers a memo on August 28, in which he said that "a new contractor doesn't not have to hire any of the previous employees." He then went on to cite recent examples of intermodal yards where hundreds of union workers lost their jobs when the railroads brought in non-union contractors.
Ken Rader, a young white supervisor, recalls that Kirchgessner called him into his office a week before the September 26 election. "He told me that if the union won, I wouldn't have a job," he says. "Bob told me he wanted me to convince people not to vote for the union."
A day before the election, Sagastume was fired. "They said my attendance was bad, but it was no worse than many, and better than some," she says. "I think the company used me to send a message." Anthony Gonzalez says that the mechanics who repaired company equipment were told they would be deported if they supported the union.
Nevertheless, workers voted for the union, 47 to 30.
Afterwards, the company agreed to begin negotiations, and by January had settled a new contract with Local 10. The union and the workers thought their bitter experiences were safely behind them. In fact, the worst was yet to come.
When Pacific Rail went to the railroad with the union agreement in hand, asking for more money to pay wage increases, BNSF dumped them. To replace PRS, they brought in another company, Parsec, which operates 50 terminals nationwide.
Parsec, a $91 million operation, has a long history of battling unions. When it took over BNSF's intermodal yard in Los Angeles, the world's largest, in 1995, the company fired all the yard's 400 workers, who belonged to the Teamsters Union. It spent $2.5 million hiring, training, and paying the travel and living expenses of a whole new workforce.
Last year, BNSF gave Parsec the contract to operate its Seattle terminal, with no bidding. Parsec again dumped the yard's Teamster workers, and hired new employees at $8.50 an hour.
BNSF doesn't just use Parsec. It recently hired another contractor, In Terminal Services, to take over its Birmingham yard, firing workers who had joined the Transportation Communications Union.
In Point Richmond on March 10, just weeks after the union agreement was signed, the yard's 101 workers were suddenly terminated permanently by PRS, which had lost the contract to run the yard. Parsec then informed workers they could apply for their old jobs again, but as new employees.
Only 26 people were allowed to return. "They handpicked the docile ones," Giles says. "I was replaced by a white woman who had only worked there a year." Rader says he was offered a job too, but as a regular worker at $8.00/hour, not his old $12.00/hour supervisor slot. According to Thibeaux, tractor driver wages have been lowered from $14.40 to $8.50.
While a growing number of unions, like those for janitors and hospital workers, are familiar with the kind of scorched-earth tactics which rocked the Point Richmond union drive, Local 10 is just having its eyes opened, Thibeaux says. The union has taken the first steps to get community support, going to the Richmond City Council and local churches. "But our members really don't understand how these people here lost their jobs," he explains. It hasn't been part of the longshore experience for decades.
"We have to learn from these problems, and support the workers here who have risked their jobs for our union," he concludes. That learning process may have to be quick. Next March or April, BNSF is opening a new, much larger yard in the Port of Oakland. It too may be operated by a contractor. And if events follow the present pattern, any effort by the workers there to join a union may become as much a war as the one underway in Pt. Richmond.
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