The challenges and rewards of union organizing

Dec 12, 2008

In September 2007, immediately prior to the organizing drive, my seven co-workers and I were frustrated. We felt we were underpaid and disrespected. Our pay ranged from $9 to $10.50 an hour. We received no paid time off—no sick days, vacation or holiday pay.

C. Gonçalves is a member of the Boston branch of the Party for Socialism and Liberation and shop steward and negotiating committee member of his union. He presented the following talk as part of the panel “Building a new workers movement” at the PSL National Conference on Socialism Dec. 7.

Good morning, brothers and sisters. It is great to be out here in L.A. amongst comrades and friends, new and old, taking part in the building of a mass fightback movement. I’ve been asked to share some of the lessons I’ve taken away from my experience leading a union organizing drive.

So to begin, I have worked at a warehouse in Boston for the past two years, where we process and deliver the inventory for a toy and baby gear store and website that sell high-end products to wealthy families. The warehouse is the lifeline of the company, but yet is by far its most neglected aspect. Grossing millions a year in profit, the four-year-old company has been featured as a growing and profitable business in numerous publications.

In September 2007, immediately prior to the organizing drive, my seven co-workers and I were frustrated. We felt we were underpaid and disrespected. Our pay ranged from $9 to $10.50 an hour. We received no paid time off—no sick days, vacation or holiday pay. The warehouse is poorly heated in the winter, forcing us to layer up and wear hats and gloves while working. The health insurance was limited, lacking vision or dental, and there was no retirement plan or other benefits to speak of.

As a student of revolutionary Marxism, I have come to understand not only the ways in which we as workers are exploited, but the ways in which we as workers can fight back and fight for change. So the question before my co-workers and me was, “What can we do to fight for change?” My instinctive response was to organize.

However, despite this objective reality facing my co-workers—low pay and an atmosphere of contempt—their instinctive response was not to fight back. Due to the small size of the company and the personal relationship the owners maintained with staff, my co-workers put a large degree of faith in the owner’s ability to “do the right thing” by us. What sparked the campaign was a series of incidents that really clarified for everyone the true relationship between us and the boss.

Three such incidents occurred over the course of a couple weeks. One, a respected co-worker was denied a raise, basically being told he was lazy and incompetent. Two, a box fell on the head of an employee. While the owner immediately took him to the hospital, he tried to evade higher premiums by telling the employee to put the incident on his personal insurance rather than on the company worker’s compensation plan. And three, an employee fell off a ladder due to an uneven section of concrete floor—initially, he had to take unpaid time off work, which received little to no response from the company.

These incidents demonstrated in real terms that regardless of personality or hard work, the owners of the company were incapable of acting in our interest. As a result, a sense of class consciousness began to slowly develop in my colleagues.

It is within the context of these failures that the organizing drive began. After discussing the positives of unionizing for weeks, we first contacted Local 25 of the Teamsters and later solicited for union card signatures. Two co-workers and I collected seven out of eight cards in 24 hours. We kept talk of the union campaign to a minimum, successfully keeping the company in the dark until it was notified by the NLRB [National Labor Relations Board] that we had filed for an election.

Immediately, the company scrambled to get themselves organized and develop an effective response.

In the six-week period before the election, the company implemented a variety of tactics to prevent unionization. From hiring high-priced labor lawyers and union-busting contractors, to sending staff-wide emails and creating company T-shirts, my bosses waged an all-out war against the union campaign. Management also went as far as offering two workers promotions and raises if they voted against the union.

Despite all of these union-busting tactics, the workers’ campaign came out on top—and we won the election 4-3. Weekly meetings were held in which the anti-union campaign, week after week, was exposed for what it truly was. The union developed fliers attacking the company, which served as a threat of further collective action.

We were not hesitant to fight the company on a legal front as well. In the middle of the campaign, one of the owners publicly stated the company would consider closing the warehouse if it was unionized, subcontracting our work instead. The union immediately filed a labor charge with the NLRB. The company was found guilty, and punished with a 3-month period of probation to clear itself. While we did not expect the anti-union NLRB to rule decisively in our favor, filing the charge put the company on notice that we would not tolerate any threats or illegal action.

After a rollercoaster year of legal battles, the Teamsters were finally certified as our union representation this past July. Over the course of that year, beginning with the campaign, working conditions significantly improved.

Three months into the campaign, we won a 10 percent raise—about $1 an hour—with two workers receiving promotions and a 20 percent raise. For the first time, the company implemented paid time off that included sick days, vacation and holiday pay for full- and part-time, hourly employees. All of this was, without a doubt, a direct product and victory of the union campaign.

Two months ago, we began negotiating our first contract with ownership. Prior to the start of negotiations, the workers met to put together a proposal package and I was elected shop steward. As such, I am part of the contract negotiating committee that includes two union officials called business agents. Still in negotiations, we are fighting to solidify our gains and win further improvements.

To close, I just want to add that, since joining the PSL, the party has instilled in me a desire to fight—to not ask for change but to demand it. I’ve realized first hand that real lessons don’t come from sitting on the sidelines, just talking about what’s wrong, but rather from participating and taking an active role.

An important lesson for me was the need to be patient and remain steadfast in my efforts. Lenin taught that we should “patiently and persistently explain.” At times, it was difficult to restrain my enthusiasm, but I had to move with my coworkers as they went through their own experiences. For socialists leading organizing drives, we must remember that it is the “deed, and not the revolutionary phrase, that will be the key to success.”

With that said, we cannot be afraid of leadership—in fact, we must embrace it. In order for a new workers’ movement to develop and strengthen, we must step up to the challenge of confronting the boss wherever and whenever. Working people have been beat down for so long that it is completely natural for fear to take root in their minds. But a movement that empowers working people is capable of not only overcoming these fears, but also achieving real victory. It is this type of movement that we in the PSL seek to build. Thank you.