Trying to Organize a Union - A Houston Story
Forming a Union – the company’s choice or the workers’ choice
When the workers at Seafood Wholesalers LTD (Houston, Texas) reported to work in February they should have found an order on the company bulletin board posted by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), an agency of the United States Government that was issued by a Judge. This order stated that federal law gives workers the right to form, join and assist a union; choose their representation to bargain; act together with other workers for their benefit and protection; choose not to engage in any of these above protected activities as well. However, the order has yet to be posted.
Former worker Kenneth Graham was anxiously awaiting this order. Kenneth was laid off by Seafood Wholesalers in January 2008 just nine days after the workers had elected the Operating Engineers, Local 564 to represent them. This order would have given him his job back. Why didn’t this happen?
In September 2007, Kenneth Graham had contacted the Union and asked for help in forming a union for the workers. Kenneth was a good worker and had even received a raise. Kenneth volunteered as Chairman of the in-plant organizing committee. After all, the federal laws are clear about workers’ rights to form a union. Even the President of Seafood Wholesalers had assured Kenneth that “if you work hard, you will get a raise regardless of the outcome of the election.”
But, when the Union responded to Kenneth and signed up well over 50% of the workers on cards for an election things turned ugly at the worksite. Kenneth was told that he could not talk about the union to other workers even though they were permitted to talk to one another about any other matters. The President of the company and an interpreter (a Retail Sales Manager) met individually with every single employee. The President later testified that upon learning of the organizing campaign, he was “shocked” that any of our employees would be unhappy . . . at work,” and, therefore he “personally wanted to meet with each and every individual and find out exactly how we can move forward with it.”
Finally, on January 15, 2008, the NLRB held an election. Workers from two separate bargaining units were voting. A witness to the voting for the company was the same Retail Sales Manager. This, by the way, was later determined to be an unlawful act by the company. One unit voted for the union and the other narrowly voted down the union. What happened with the workers that voted the union down? It was later determined that the company failed to give the union an accurate list of employees’ home addresses and that 38% of this unit’s employees could not be contacted due to an erroneous list. In any event, after this January 2008 election, the company filed an appeal with the NLRB Judge and everything was placed on hold – no union yet. Kenneth Graham was laid off and the workers had to wait.
Now, fast-forward to February 3, 2009. It is now one year and 5 months since Kenneth Graham first contacted the union. It is just over a year that Kenneth was laid-off from his job. The long-awaited ruling has finally been made. In addition to the posting on the company bulletin board, the Judge has ruled the following:
The Seafood Wholesalers must cease and desist and take affirmation action to follow the law and to offer reinstatement of Kenneth and make him whole (minus any earnings from other sources). It is also ordered to allow workers to engage in workplace conversations about the union. It is ordered not to layoff or discriminate against any worker for union activities or to coerce any worker in their exercise of rights guaranteed under law. It is ordered that another election for the unit with the flawed list of eligible voters take place. Finally, Seafood Wholesalers was ordered to bargain with the union for the unit that voted in favor of the union.
But, alas, this order will not take affect because Seafood Wholesalers has appealed this too. It could be months or years before in this case will be settled. That means that the workers still do not have a Union and Kenneth Graham does not have his job back at Seafood Wholesalers. Our nation’s labor laws are not helping the workers. Companies have all of the power and they control whether workers will have a union.
Workers need to be in control and should have a free choice for a union. If the Employee Free Choice Act was the law of the land, the union at Seafood Wholesalers would have been recognized back in November 2007 when a majority of the workers had signed up. There would have been a contract by February 2008. If the company had tried to drag out contract talks, binding arbitration would have been imposed according to the new law. Kenneth Graham would not have been laid-off because the penalties for having done so would have been real penalties. Seafood Wholesalers would have faced not only paying Kenneth his back pay but 2 times that amount in liquidated damages and civil penalties as well.
Some say, our nation’s laws about forming unions do not need to be changed. Others say that workers already have the freedom to form unions and are not harassed, intimidated or terminated for trying to form a union. Nationwide, 25% of the workers who want a union end up like Kenneth Graham. The workers at Seafood Wholesalers in Houston will tell you differently. They have lived though it. They still want a union. Yet, they continue to wait for their choice to be honored.
[This case and the ruling can be found on the web at the National Labor Relations Board, CA-25998]