Hard Labor

The employees of Allied Fibers came to America looking for work and freedom. They found work.

Miguel Martinez and Hector Villalobos had written to Florida Rural Legal Services because when Martinez lived in Florida, Laura Germino had helped him with immigration difficulties. He hoped she might now be able to let him know "what rights we [have] to be able to have them treat us better in [the Allied/Poly Sac plant]."

Germino contacted Houston's Central American Refugee Center, part of a national network of legal-assistance organizations devoted to the problems of Central American immigrants. The CARECEN staff felt that the Allied/Poly Sac problems required additional assistance, perhaps from a union. After speaking to several Houston locals they were put in touch with the Dallas office of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union, because of that union's history of organizing immigrant workers.

The ILGWU, however, was hesitant to move into a very small plant in an unfamiliar industry and territory. Still, after some exploratory meetings with the workers, they decided to take on the organizing effort.

At the time Martinez and Villalobos wrote to Laura Germino, they were aware of only one other worker who shared their concerns and was willing to do something about them. But once word got out at the plant that someone was interested in their plight, several more workers responded to CARECEN's arrangement of meetings with the ILGWU. The Orellanas were among the first to take part, and soon found themselves in leadership roles.

About 75 people are employed at the Poly Sac plant, 61 of whom were potentially "qualified" employees, under National Labor Relations Board rules, for union recruitment. During the summer of 1993, the workers began spreading the word through the small plant about the union. They got a good response among the workers, although some were afraid to have anything to do with either the union or the government agencies in charge of factory investigations. And perhaps with good reason -- the union supporters say that once Allied/ Poly Sac learned of the union activity, it retaliated. Union sympathizers were reassigned to less desirable jobs, given split shifts and abrupt changes in work schedules and had their overtime hours cut back. They would be told to wait at home to be called back in to work, but the call would never come.

With the union campaign out in the open, a certification election, which would sanction the ILGWU as the official bargaining representative of the Allied/Poly Sac employees, was scheduled for December. Both sides began to campaign in earnest. The company began to hold regular meetings with employees to warn of the consequences of voting for unionization. The passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement offered a new weapon: workers were told that if the union won the election, the company would simply close up shop and move to Mexico.

The reprisals continued. Jose Orellana found his hours steadily cut back, and on September 4, his foreman told him not to come back to work until he was called. After three weeks without a phone call, Jose got the message. But when he applied for unemployment compensation, the company claimed Orellana was "still on the payroll," and therefore ineligible. In other words, they would neither let him work nor fire him.

Orellana hasn't been able to find another steady job since. His wife, Maria Flores, has been reassigned and has had her hours cut back. And, accord-ing to the union, their treatment isn't unique. Indeed, several other union supporters have received similar treatment, and in seven cases the union has filed charges with the National Labor Relations Board.

On September 25, Allied/Poly Sac workers filed with OSHA a detailed complaint concerning plant conditions. Department by department, the complaint listed more than 50 allegedly dangerous or unhealthy conditions, including malfunctioning packing machines, exposed electrical wires, clogged and leaking plumbing, weaving machines that gave off electrical shocks, high noise levels and a lack of ear protection, poor ventilation, no protection from hazardous chemicals, and poorly maintained lavatories.

In apparent anticipation of the OSHA inspections that would follow the employee complaints, the company made efforts to clean up the factory. Injured workers were allowed to consult their own doctors, ventilation was improved, some electrical work was done, the lavatories were cleaned up and, in a symbolic if small victory, toilet paper was finally supplied in the washrooms.

OSHA inspections were scheduled to begin in November; in the meantime the company and the workers prepared for the December 10 union vote. Union supporters became increasingly identifiable by their ILGWU caps and T-shirts. For its part, the company taped large posters to the wall, featuring cartoon characters describing in broken English and Spanish what would happen to the workers if they fell into the clutches of the union. A vote for the union, said the cartoons, might bring a small pay raise. But that would soon be eaten up in union dues, strikes, and fines for those who refused to follow union orders.

The organizing and election campaign became intense in early October. Since most of the workers were on the job six days a week, the only time available for meetings was generally Sunday mornings. The company countered with mandatory meetings of its own, where supervisors would denounce the union. The union charges that one supervisor, Cai Nam Sinh, would never refer to the ILGWU or even the "union." To him, the organizers were simply "the communists." Another supervisor, head company manager Dinna Kou, is also alleged to have slandered three ILGWU organizers by claiming they were "involved in the crime of cocaine trafficking."

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