CFL News
March 07, 2013

Unions shift attention to small shops

Chicago's unions are working grassroots community strategies to help workers exercise their rights

Source: Chicago Tribune

By Alejandra Cancino

Unions traditionally refrained from organizing mom and pop businesses because such efforts were deemed too costly to add small numbers of members. And high turnover among low-paid workers, including those supplied by temporary employment agencies, made organizing nearly impossible.

But as union membership has sagged, some unions are reaching out to people employed at smaller businesses like carwashes, shops and warehouses. They often work in tandem with community organizations known as worker centers, which help workers learn their legal rights.

For example, the day after Thanksgiving a few dozen first-shift workers in a protest for better working conditions and holiday pay didn't show up at Chicago's Artistic Stitches Inc. The workers, mostly Latinas, later questioned their move and wondered whether they could lose their jobs. They called Arise Chicago Worker Center for help and met with an organizer to learn about their rights. Soon after, the center put them in touch with the Workers United union.

Artistic Stitches is an embroiderer on Chicago's West Side. Its clients include apparel manufacturers, promotional product distributors, uniform companies and other embroiderers, according to its website.

Edward Mancini, the company's president, said in a phone interview the company hasn't mistreated employees. He declined further comment.

Richard Monje, international vice president of Workers United, said helping workers in shops like Artistic Stitches is part of a broader effort to help people understand why unions are relevant and important.

"Personally, I hope this (union) will become a socially relevant organization that will help shape the new models of bargaining and guarantee good living conditions," Monje said. At the same time, he said his goal is to increase the union's regional membership by 5,000 within two to three years, to reach a new total of 25,000.

Mark Denzler, vice president and chief operating officer of the Illinois Manufacturers' Association, said paying wages above market rates makes it more difficult for the business to compete, locally and globally. "Adding costs on the backs of employers will make them less competitive and could force them to make decisions like not hiring as many workers, reducing hours, not purchasing new equipment or raising prices," Denzler said.

Figures from the Bureau of Labor Statistics show union ranks nationally have declined to 14.4 million members last year from 17.7 million in 1983. Companies have demanded more from workers while, in some cases, paying meager wages. In Illinois, employers legally can pay 50 cents below the minimum wage of $8.25 per hour for three months. Some factories, such as Artistic Stitches, do that.

"This type of organizing has been going on for years, but there is more emphasis on it now because of the state of labor and because of the levels of exploitation that exist," said Jorge Ramirez, president of the Chicago Federation of Labor.

Low-paid carwash workers in Illinois and California, for example, are being organized by the United Steelworkers and in New York by the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union. As a first step, unions sometimes partner with worker centers or other community organizations that have relationships with workers.

When organizing workers, worker centers have looser legal restrictions than unions, said Robert Bruno, a labor and employment relations professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago. For example, the National Labor Relations Act restricts the number of days a union can picket if it does not represent workers. Additionally, the centers are rooted in a community and workers often return to them, even if they leave one job for another.

Worker centers "can fight back and better represent workers with the long-term hope that they can build something that looks like a union," Bruno said.

The Steelworkers, working with worker centers and community groups, have been organizing carwash workers for about six years in the Los Angeles area. In 2011, the Steelworkers negotiated their first contract with a carwash owner. Last year, the union negotiated two more. The contracts increased workers' $8-per-hour pay by 2 percent.

Organizers said the union plans to fight to enforce standards for working conditions.

Eric Wulf, chief executive of International Carwash Association, said most of the country's roughly 100,000 carwash owners follow the law. "We hope that people understand that it is a large industry and when there is one case or one story of someone not following the rule that's one example and they should not condemn the totality of the industry," Wulf said.

Organizing carwash workers has been a challenge because it's not an industry dominated by large companies that unions can picket or boycott. Still, Mike Yoffee, the union's organizing director, said carwashes employ thousands of potential union members, which is attractive to the Steelworkers.

"In order to be successful we have to raise the wages and working conditions of not just a few carwashes but in the whole market," Yoffee said.

In organizing low-wage workers, unions also have the opportunity to improve their reputation among key constituents.

Warehouse Workers for Justice, a Chicago-area worker center founded by the United Electrical Workers union, has been trying to organize warehouse workers in Will County. Its biggest challenge: Roughly two-thirds of the 30,000 people working in the county's warehouses are temporary workers employed by staffing agencies.

The ultimate goal is to form a union. But for now, Warehouse Workers for Justice is trying to transform the industry into one in which workers are hired directly by warehouse operators with better wages and working conditions, said Leah Fried, a spokeswoman for the group.

To form a union, 51 percent of workers are required to vote for representation. That majority is nearly impossible to attain at a warehouse with many temporary workers and a high turnover rate. So, instead of a traditional organizing drive, Will County warehouse workers are signing up to be members of the Warehouse Workers Organizing Committee, which is part of Warehouse Workers for Justice.

If they join the organizing committee, workers get to take their membership with them regardless of where they are employed, and membership remains secret. In return, workers get some unionlike protection.

For example, Warehouse Workers for Justice has organized rallies demanding better working conditions and has filed lawsuits alleging discrimination, wage theft and other labor law violations by staffing agencies and warehouse operators and owners.

Joel Anderson, president and chief executive of International Warehouse Logistics Association, said warehouse industry jobs are protected by state and federal labor laws and workers are paid on the basis of being semiskilled. "We are not hearing, except from pressure groups, that workers feel mistreated by employers," Anderson said.

In the past two decades, the number of worker centers nationwide has increased from five to about 300, said Adam Kader, director of the Arise Chicago Worker Center. Kader said worker centers have a symbiotic relationship with unions. Many low-wage workers need immediate assistance when they reach his center, which opened in 2002. However, he added, "we can enforce a victory with community pressure, but only a union can enforce a victory by law because it has the power of a contract."

Worker centers sometimes handle issues without union involvement. Jorge Mujica, an organizer with Arise Chicago, cited a recent call from a woman whose boss told her a collection agency planned to garnish her wages. The agency was looking for her brother, who had a similar name. But the woman, who spoke only Spanish, hadn't opened the agency's letters. Mujica said he called the agency and quickly resolved the issue.

Arise Chicago also played a key role at Artistic Stitches.

When a group of about 20 women outlined their issues, Mujica said he realized that only a union could help them make long-lasting changes. Together, the union and Arise Chicago began organizing the factory's approximately 60 workers. By a narrow margin in January, the workers elected Workers United to represent them at the bargaining table.

On a sunny winter afternoon, about two weeks after the election, a dozen or so workers trickled into the union's offices on Ashland Avenue near the Eisenhower Expressway to celebrate their victory and get updated on next steps.

Monje, the union's international vice president, told them the hardest part is still to come.

If he can't negotiate a contract within a year, the National Labor Relations Board, a federal agency that oversees union elections and is in charge of protecting the rights of private-sector workers, could be called to hold another election, and the union could be voted out.

Monje urged members to find a way to make peace and win support with those who voted against the union. And he reminded them that they won't have to pay union dues until a contract is signed. He pledged that the union would fight during negotiations for better pay and benefits, including time off for holidays and vacations, and a more dignified work environment.

"Don't you feel like you are alone," Monje said in Spanish.

Official negotiations between Artistic Stitches and the union are set to begin March 20.

Twitter @WriterAlejandra