Hard Labor

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

Throughout this period, union supporters were puzzled that the company seemed to know what they were planning and when they were holding meetings -- union supporters would find their work schedules juggled without notice just before a planned union meeting.

On December 7, an OSHA inspector visited the plant in the course of his investigation of the health and safety complaints. As usual when outsiders were present, the Chinese workers were herded behind the locked doors of their living quarters. Maria Flores saw a chance to help the Chinese workers, and told the inspector where they were hidden, pointing to a rear entrance to the bedrooms that had been left unlocked. The inspector went up to the door she had indicated but refrained from opening it -- he said he didn't know if the women on the other side were dressed. Still, he confirmed that he heard voices behind the door. (OSHA inspectors, citing ongoing investigations, would neither confirm nor deny Flores' story.)

Flores thought that she had finally found a way to help her Chinese friends. She told Eva Hernandez, another union supporter and the only one bilingual in English and Spanish, what she had done.

That night, the Chinese workers were rounded up and taken out of the plant. Allied/Poly Sac employees who saw them said some of them were weeping, and they did not know where they were going. One of the women asked for Flores, to say goodbye. Told that Flores was not at the plant, the woman asked that somebody give Flores three small remembrances. Flores still has two of them: a tiny bear made from hair and a Christmas decoration. The third, given to a supervisor, was not passed on to her. Flores never saw her friend again.

Three days later, on December 10, the certification election was held at the plant. Of the 61 workers eligible to vote, 52 cast a ballot. The final count was 28 to 24 against the union.

Miguel Martinez, whose letter to Laura Germino for help had begun the entire employee campaign, was at home ill from a work-related injury, and wanted to come in to vote. But the company disqualified him, saying he had quit and was no longer on the payroll. He has since been "rehired," but as a "new employee," beginning again at the minimum rate of $4.25 instead of the $5 he been earning when he was dismissed.

Among such small numbers, it was fairly easy to determine who voted for and against the union. Eva Hernandez and one other worker, thought to be union loyalists, allegedly turned out to have been taking part in union meetings on behalf of the company -- an action illegal under the National Labor Relations Act. Eva Hernandez no longer attends meetings of the union supporters. She has been promoted to supervisor.

But the company's victory may have been short-lived. Last month's actions by the NLRB and OSHA could be the prelude to further government intervention on behalf of the employees. The union says it is confident it will win its slander suit against the company, and that the NLRB will rule in its favor on the unfair labor practices. Organizers say they are expecting another election within the next year.

In the aftermath of the lost election, ILGWU organizer Betty Boyer reflected on what might have gone wrong in the campaign. She thinks the organizers may have underestimated the potential strength of the union support, and overestimated the willingness of the workers to endure the company counterattack.

Following the election, the union's supporters formed an auxiliary Associated International Members group under the auspices of the ILGWU. At a recent Sunday morning meeting, held in the small hotel room off Highway 59 that served as the union's makeshift headquarters, about a dozen AIM members gathered over coffee and cookies to discuss ongoing business. The walls were papered with union posters, snapshots of union activities, hand-drawn company organizational charts and a pencil-sketch layout of the Allied/Poly Sac factory. In one corner, an old computer sat on a table amidst a stack of papers and files.

The meeting was late getting started, because several members worked the Saturday late shift at the plant. A couple of others called to say they couldn't make it because of family emergencies. While the adults talked, a few small children played and whispered in the hallway.

After a few minutes of joking and gossip, followed by an opening prayer, Jose Orellana quietly took charge of the meeting. He introduced a couple of visitors, who were greeted with polite applause, and reviewed ongoing business. The meeting began with a discussion of immigration matters and tentative plans for a fund-raising party.

These administrative matters soon gave way to more immediate concerns. In mid-May, OSHA issued a report and fined the company more than $28,000 for health and safety violations. And on Friday, the workers had been unexpectedly issued second paychecks, which appeared to be various amounts of back pay. A union organizer had spent much of Friday night and Saturday talking to workers, trying to figure out what the payment was for and how it had been calculated. Most had received payments of $105.

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