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Working From The Inside Out

05 Feb

By: Ricardo Torres

Confessions of a union organizer

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As I wait for the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) to come back with a decision on how they are going to change the union election process I have been pondering my former years as a union official and the tactics I would deploy when running campaigns from the national level. I recall when I was an Organizing Director for the United Steelworkers (USW) and accepted a challenge to organize mini-mills. We were losing members in the larger “full service” steel mills (integratedsteel mills) with a vast amount of foreign made steel coming into the country. So called, mini-mills were popping up all over the United States and they were mostly non-union. We also had an enormous amount ofnon-union vendors and/or contractors with permanent stations and workforces at the mills that depended on USW membership support to be able to compete for their jobs. The union was quite angry because for the most part, we had the skilled workforce to consolidate these jobs into our membership.

Ricardo Torres – President & CEO

One of these steel mills (in Michigan) was a sore spot for the union leadership. We had assurances in our past steel pact negotiations with the major steel companies and a side letter with National Steel Inc., stating that they would take into “consideration” some corrective measures to weed out some contractors in the plant where it made sense as payback for concessions. For the union, this made sense as we were down to about 3,200 members in this mill and it was our goal to push National Steel into honoring their commitment to us.

Through our districts and locals, and their committee people, wetargeted the contractors whose contracts were coming up for review. These contractors needed our members on the ground to support them, and in fact, it would be impossible to complete their jobs without this support. We pulled back our support and started a smear campaign againstthese contractors. At the same time, we were ensured by Leo Gerard (USWPresident) that he would put significant pressure on them to comply with their assurances to us that they would review their contractors as we were working together on some pro-steel industry legislation in Congress.

Union committee men (and women) made sure that key people were strategically located in the plants and set up groups throughout the shop floor to harass and intimidate the non-union contractors. Our inside “creators of chaos” would purposely park heavy equipment in areaswhere work was supposed to be performed, creating giant blockades to production. To our people on the inside, sabotaging machinery meant theycouldn’t get work done, which meant more loss of production. Our insiders would arrange for “other work” to be done when the non-union contractors needed them for support roles. There was damage done to non-union contractor’s personal vehicles and personal property. They were all called scabs (even though some did belong to other trade unions). Contractor restrooms were destroyed when waterlines were “cut” and all contractor facilities were hindered useless. This was done to turn the company against the contractors for exposing “safety issues” and “shoddy workmanship”.

Because of our efforts to destroy the reputation of the non-unioncontractors we were on our way to winning our fight. One company that provided the material for the furnaces was thrown out of the plant when their contract expired. Another contractor was set to take their place. But, during the replacement period, the new incoming company had to construct their own buildings and offices. Through the locals, committeemen and local reps, we held them hostage. We insisted that theyhire the people WE recommended to them. We forced them to hire heavy machine operators, specialized mechanics and employees in each of their specialized departments (we had people, at the ready, regardless of the technical expertise needed to fill the void we created) in exchange for labor peace and support at the plant level.

After forcing the new company to bow to our level, we used a labor education center (which we used and staffed) as a decoy for organizing in the empowerment zone of Detroit. Once we got the specificsand the number of employees, we went through “friendly” employment headhunters that we knew and inside contacts within the Focus Hope Industrial Training Facility in Detroit. They supplied us with the specific workforce who had the needed skills and experience required by the employer. We then set up meetings with them at the decoy office in Detroit and if they fit our needs, we told them that the job would be a “union job” and that they needed to sign a union signature card. We instructed them to leave the date off the card and that we would fill that in when the time was right. If the “applicant” was less than excited about signing the card we simply disposed of the application after they exited the interview.

Once we had the cards signed, our USW committee people would passthe resumes into our contact person on the ground who was so deeply in our debt and appreciative to us for the ground support, which made it possible to meet their completion deadlines.

When we had more than 50% of all hires on the job, we gave noticeto the company that we intended on filing a petition for representation, which, the local had promised them we would. We had one last meeting with the employees to make sure everyone was still on board. To make it difficult not to commit to our organizing efforts, we made sure that we had the very same USW union representatives who workedside-by-side with them every day in the plant in attendance as well. Wedated the cards and used them to show interest and had an election dateset in stone.

This contracting company was so far in bed with us at this point that they didn’t dare fight us. We went on to win by a 100% margin (the first time in my career to have every vote). It was a quick and easy election. It was all an inside job! By using our leverage and strength within an already unionized facility, it was no challenge for my team toorganize the new non-union contractor. This is an example of why the average win rate is higher in a facility that has a partially unionized workforce. It is also an example as to why these types of facilities serve as a prime target for unions to pursue when they sit inside their union density network.

As the NLRB roles out their pro-union changes, employers must look at their organizations and assess where their strength’s and weaknesses are. If they want to remain union free, they need to identifyholes in their armor and take action to assure safety from attack. Now that I sit on management’s side, I can tell you that the unions are looking at every weakness they can find your organization, as the union’s goal is to increase their membership levels. I can also tell youthat the best time to identify your weakness is before the union is embedded in your organization. Once you get them in there, you will havea hell of a fight on your hands to get them out and keep them out.

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