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Warehousing Anger

05 Feb

By: Ricardo Torres

Confessions of a union organizer

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Now that the holiday gift-giving season is past, we would like to take a few minutes to recognize and examine the companies and workers who make it possible: warehousing hubsand distribution centers. Please read on to see how labor views these groups and some of the tactics they employ to drive a wedge between management and workers.

Ricardo Torres – President & CEO

Warehousing hubs were growing fast across Washington and Oregon states in the year 2000, and my organizing department was getting calls from many workers at warehouses located in the Portland, Oregon metro area and across Western Washington state. Many of these warehouses made up the major hubs due to their proximity to major freeways, rail lines and the ports of Seattle, Tacoma and Portland.

The company that interested us the most was a third-party warehousingcompany that had many issues that were what we called “tipping points” for the workers to make the jump to organizing. The issues at this company were both operational and personal to this group of workers. There were almost 500 employees in two of the companies five facilities in the region that met the standards to organize as a single unit, namely a “community of interest” with frequent cross-warehouse job assignments. After several telephone conversations and receiving vital company information from their newly formed organizing committee, I decided to send a lead organizer to interview the committee.

As I have discussed in previous newsletters, we required potential organizing committees to meet a set of standards to receive our help. They had to prove to us that:
1.They were ready to fight
2.The issues were personal to the employees
3.The internal activists were reflective of the demographics of the entire unit or class of workers
4.The internal activists had tenure, work skills, and the respect of the majority of workers.

The first stages of any organizing campaign are crucial. We needed toget our hands on internal documents, lists of unfulfilled promises, andany other “dirt” that we could use to attack the company as a whole andindividual managers/owners/executives personally. If we did not receivethese tools, then it was very unlikely that we would intervene on behalf of the employees. The fact is, we looked at our targeted companies as a slab of meat that we needed to “tenderize” before we could consume it.

We always looked at the intensity of how the issues (real or imagined) resonated with the workers and the intensity of their mistrusttowards management. It was also always helpful to know any history of union membership amongst family members or friends to anchor their dedication to the cause. (i.e. If it was good enough for my Dad, then it’s good enough for me. I was raised on good union wages.)

The first meeting went very well and covered two separate days to make sure that committee members from all of shifts were interviewed. Wewere able to map out the company’s operations, weaknesses in the operations, and (most importantly) weaknesses in the management team. However, before we committed to participate in this drive, we required the internal Volunteer Organizing Committee (VOC) to expand their influence into all departments and lay the foundation of core issues they knew that the company would ignore. They would also have to ensure that the complaints seemed uncoordinated so as not to raise suspicion ofunion activity.

One of the greatest advantages to organizing these facilities was thecomplex nature of the operations; some of services provided at these facilities included cross-docking, direct store delivery, distribution centers, import/export, light assembly, packaging and repackaging, returned goods processing, sorting, transloading, cold storage, and freeze blasting. Many workers were not properly trained or notified in an adequate timeframe to mentally prepare themselves to effectively complete their job assignments. This was leading to many workers receiving write-ups and discipline from management.

The main reason we gauge the workplace atmosphere and worker frustration before committing to any campaign is that we knew that, in order to win, we would have to play hardball. If the union supporters’ do not feel as is their collective backs are against the wall and have a”win by any means necessary” determination, then we were simply wastingeveryone’s time and efforts. We even told this to the VOC before committing any resources to the campaign and had them return to management to attempt to solve some of the issues. However, we gave themvery specific direction on how to do this, and we made sure that, basedon the unit’s history, they only brought up issues we knew had been raised before and that management would again shoot down. This concealedour involvement and did not raise suspicion among the management team. This approach takes away one of management’s primary election tools to request that workers give them another chance to make positive changes. The primary reason that the percentage of union wins increases in secondand third elections is because management has already exhausted this effective plea. We effectively took that argument away from them before anyone even signed a card, and we made sure that workers knew about it. The end result is that 68% of the workers in these two facilities signedauthorization cards.

Once committed to the campaign, we placed the necessary resources andmanpower in play. As we prepared to file the petition, we set up a meeting with the VOC to discuss the post petition campaign strategy. Given our relationship with the card signers, we advised them on our history of winning organizing campaigns in similar industries and informed them of the actions the management team was going to take. We made sure that everyone was well versed on what was going to happen so that no one would be taken by surprise. It also reinforced our credibility when our predictions turned out to be 100% accurate. We gavethe committee the reasons we thought an all-out attack was going to benefit their interests and ultimate goals the most and then prodded them to fully enact our recommendations. The plan was precise, and we set up calendars with actions for us to take, as well as different scenarios of management reaction. Make no mistake, though: management was only going to react to our actions and would not be allowed to set the pace of the campaign.

In order to instill an even deeper sense of ownership and have them believe that it was their own plan, we made the VOC sleep on the decision. They came back the next day even more dedicated than before.

The committee reached out to the card signers (Who, by this time, were very involved due to our intense efforts to improve our relationship with them; in effect, we had made them an extension of the core VOC.) and asked them to volunteer their energy to the cause. We categorized them by the level of actions they were willing to take, so that if anyone started talking to management, they would be easier to isolate and we could provide effective damage control. However, the teamshowed commitment equally among all of the participants, no matter how involved they were. This is why we required workers to take full ownership of the drive before we would commit to them: it had to be their baby!

We had already started blatant union organizing activity in the otherthree plants that we did not have the necessary support in. We brought out local AFL/CIO CLC (Central Labor Council) volunteers to reach out totheir membership to find relatives of their affiliate members who worked at the facilities. Then, with the help of the CLC, we began passing out flyers, openly talking to workers and placing union propaganda in establishments around the plants. We created a flurry of activity that management had to respond to at those locations, which caused confusion and wasted many company resources and routed them away from out actual targets. We kept up the activity at these other facilities during our campaign cycle, which ultimately generated true interest due to management’s overzealous reactions.

We finally filed our petition on a Friday evening just 10 minutes before the NLRB office closed. This allowed us to start the election clock without the company’s knowledge and to even further solidify the campaign strategy with the active workforce. We took some of the VOC members with us to hand in the petition themselves. This further cemented the workers’ ownership of the campaign and the idea that the fight and benefits gained were theirs. This is a reaffirmation process that we repeated throughout the campaign.

As was the rule of my organizing department, we never pursued new signature cards after the petition was filed, but we always welcomed them. Our goal was to act like a cohesive advocacy group to all workers in the unit and to engage management in demands to improve working conditions. We focused our resources on maintaining the workers who did sign the cards, keeping them loyal to the cause. We did not need any other support to win the election.

We were waiting for news from the workers about management’s reactionto the NLRB filing notification fax that they would receive on Monday. When we heard no reaction, we thought that perhaps news had leaked aboutthe pending petition and management was prepared for it. It was difficult, but we kept quiet and did not seek information on whether they had received the fax; however, we were concerned that our information blackout had a hole in it. Three days went by without any reaction from management, but we could not wait any longer. We started our direct challenges to management’s policies and procedures at both targeted facilities, coordinating the message and the execution of the directed attacks on management.

Finally, an additional two days later, we received word that the management team went crazy. They were in meetings all day and floor supervisors were very nervous. Word leaked out that the fax from the NLRB was placed into a file box because the person who received it did not know what he was reading. The manager of the facilities never openedthe physical letter because he put it aside and forgot about it. This lapse on management’s part gave us an additional week to rally our forces and attack management.

By this time, the VOC had started a “work to organize” slowdown. The cold storage generator was somehow damaged and the backup unit failed tokick in, so a lot of food was spoiled, which backed up the delivery schedule and angered local stores. Management of course blamed it on thenight shift, which is what we expected, and went on a witch hunt, whichis also what we expected. The department Lead was a man with 15 years on the job. He was brought into the supervisor’s office and accused of tampering or allowing tampering to happen, but since there were no cameras in the area, they had no proof of such activity. He was also identified as being a union supporter and told that he had better stop supporting the union or he would be fired, which is an Unfair Labor Practice (ULP). This news spread to the other facility, and workers fromboth locations staged a demonstration outside the central office. The outrage was fueled by the fact that, in addition to being respected in his own right, the Lead was also related to well respected, seasoned Lead workers at both target facilities. We continued to keep CLC volunteers at the other three non-targeted locations, making sure that this news spread, passing out flyers and further distracting management.

Here are a few other examples of how the fluid warehouse operations were frustrated:
•Distributor Cross-Docking: This process consolidates inbound products from different vendors into a mixed product pallet, which is delivered to the final customer. The orders were getting mixed up. The merchandise audit computer on the lifts were showing the correct combination of products, but once received at the delivery site, the order would be off.
•Direct Store Delivery: Strict obedience to highway traffic laws caused delays and prompted an onslaught of angry calls from the retail delivery site. This was most effective against small stores wherethere is very little stock space.
•Distribution Center: Dock doors were starting to jam, which held up production and had to be serviced. Dock levelers (bridges to span the gap between a truck and warehouse) were receiving damage, whichmade the dock unusable. A specially designed truck used to move empty trailers from dock-to-dock and dock-to-yard started having mechanical problems, further blocking docks.
•Import/Export Services: Some import/export cargo requires specialized material handling equipment. This equipment was experiencingmany mechanical problems, also hampering the warehousing capacity.
•Light Assembly: Quality issues occurred, which required additional inspection time.

These actions and more were taken using hit and run timeframes. This prohibited the participants’ discovery and kept the management team chasing shadows.

The VOC was working hard to keep morale high despite an aggressive response by management; the work force targeted management on the floor like a laser. We had the characteristic traits of all supervisors and wetargeted the ones who were prone to anger or had a spontaneous nature. Every safety issue would be addressed if the worker had the slightest feeling that it might be hazardous and was followed up with a call to OSHA. We posted photos of the homes of top level management to show the difference in their lifestyles and performed background searches to expose character flaws or legal issues. One front-line supervisor was onthe sexual predator list and another was charged with spousal abuse. All of this and other embarrassing personal information was posted.

A well-coordinated response to mandatory meetings was executed. Workers brought in popcorn to watch the anti-union meetings, turned their backs to the speakers, and at least one person in every group walked out of the meeting to return to their work assignments.

We had a floating information line following the trucks coming out ofone of the non-targeted facilities to every local drop to pass out flyers about the lousy working conditions at the company’s five facilities, which further scattered the company’s resources and heightened management’s paranoia.

Towards the end of the campaign, we wanted to finish on an emotional high. Several “Midnight letters” were sent out on company letterhead andshown by the committee to the workers. They consisted of internal memosdiscussing issues of concern that had been constantly brought up to management, instructions detailing stalling tactics supervisors should use in responding to any inquiries regarding the issues, and memos discussing management’s strategy on how to deal with certain employees. These appeared two days before the election, which left the company without any time to respond or authenticate the memos.

The campaign was won. We calculated that we only lost twelve percent or our original card signers and picked up another three percent before the election, which gave us a substantial margin.

This victory was the result of many factors, but all were basic, and my only job was to win, period. First and foremost, it was paramount to recognize when targeted workers were at a tipping point in their mistrust of management. Next, our push to have the committee go back to management to present the demands and the rejection they received was the final straw for this group to make the jump to organizing; however, this was just the beginning. The group had to absolutely take ownership of and responsibility for their organizing efforts so that they would buy into the actions we were directing them to perform, just like an army. We had to keep them busy, utilizing hit and run tactics against management to keep them off balance like guerilla attacks. The workers had to keep hitting management and misdirecting them to exhaust their resources. We also had to recognize each worker’s skill set and utilize them within their limitations.

Under the right circumstances, it is possible to leach a company intomanagement’s worst nightmare. We were not the solution to the workers’ problems, but simply a tool for them to get what they thought was the upper hand on their company; a scenario unfortunately created by management. My department’s job was to take the workers’ raw anger and mistrust of management and direct it to our purposes. We never could have accomplished this victory without management’s unwitting assistance.

The management teams at many companies never understand that they could prevent these organizing campaigns with a simple application of consistency. This is the reason that I had a win record of nearly 90% onthe campaigns I took to elections; I knew how to pick the “winners”.

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