By Bruce Vail
One of the most ambitious new union drives in the country is gathering momentum from its starting point in the Pacific Northwest. The International Association of Machinists & Aerospace Workers (IAM) has launched a campaign to organize thousands of industrial workers employed by a leading multinational manufacturer of doors, windows and wood millwork.
IAM is embarking a long-term effort to unionize some 5,600 workers at 23 North American plants run by Jeld-Wen, an international company with additional factories in Europe and Asia. The union’s interest was raised after being approached by pro-union workers anxious to establish higher wages and safer working conditions, particularly at plants in Chiloquin and Klamath Falls, Ore., says Bill Street of IAM.
The campaign kicked off in February when union organizers began leafleting at five widely separated plants in Oregon, Washington and California. Organizing outposts were established at about the same time in 13 other states and two Canadian provinces, says Street.
The effort is unusual in its size and scope. Organizing new members at IAM typically involves much smaller bargaining units on a single site, or small number of sites. It’s an ambitous undertaking for the 720,000-member union, which is risking significant resources in a environment where many organizing drives fail.
“We are looking at this as a long-term effort,” says Street, who is a veteran of the union’s successful 2011-2012 campaigns at Ikea. “The plants are spread out all over the place—Oregon, Texas, Iowa, Pennsylvania, Canada, the list goes on—and we expect management to fight us every inch of the way. … This is a major commitment for us, and IAM is bringing local, national and international resources to the fight.”
In response, Jeld-Wen managers have hunkered down, bringing in the consulting firm Cruz & Associates, Inc. to help block the union, instituting compulsory anti-union meetings for workers, and beefing up surveillance of employees, Street reports. It’s adopted a policy of “no comment” to the local press in Oregon and failed to respond to requests for comment from Working In These Times.
Jeld-Wen’s combative stance leads IAM organizers to expect that only formal elections supervised by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) can succeed in unionizing the company, Street says. The collection of authorizing cards for such an election has been going well so far, he says, but no target date has been established yet for beginning the NLRB election process.
That Jeld-Wen has become a target of union organizing is no surprise to 34-year-old Tony Inman, a former employee who lives in Klamath Falls.
“The hourlies—the hourly workers—are not happy. They are looking for a change,” Inman says. Although he’s been off the Jeld-Wen production line for a year and a half, Inman says he is in regular contact with many of his former co-workers in the town of 20,000 and that the problems at Jeld-Wen have been a matter of daily conversation there for decades.
Wages and benefits add up to a “next to the bottom-of-the-line package, a skeleton package,” he says. As an experienced Komo machine operator, he was making $14.68 per hour at the time he quit the company. A health insurance plan to cover himself and his son clipped about $200 off his monthly income, and there weren’t any extra benefits that came with the job, according to Inman.
Poor pay was a problem, but according to Inman, it was callous or hostile treatment by company managers that ultimately caused him to quit. He says he was injured on the job in 2011 because of understaffing, and managers immediately tried to blame him for the three dislocated ribs. Jeld-Wen blocked his workers’ compensation claim and managers tried to intimidate him, Inman says.
“When people say there are safety problems there, I have to agree. That’s my personal opinion, but it is also my personal experience,” he says.
Workers interviewed by IAM organizers have a wide range of concerns aside from wages and safety, adds Street (see the union’s Jeld-Wen Justice Facebook page for a sampling). One is that corporate globalization is coming home to the small towns of Oregon and elsewhere: In 2011, family-owned Jeld-Wen was sold to the Canada-based leveraged buyout firm Onex Corp. Some workers are uneasy with the realization that their jobs are no longer linked to local ownership or even the U.S. national economy, but are under the control of nameless financial managers in Toronto, Street says.
As in the Ikea campaign, IAM plans to pursue its Jeld-Wen goals in the international arena, the IAM organizer continues, and has already lined up allies in the Building and Wood Workers’ International (BWI) labor federation. Earlier this year, BWI issued a statement condemning Jeld-Wen for violating U.N. International Labor Organization standards on workers’ rights to organize in its efforts to block IAM.
According to Street, membership in BWI has allowed the Machinists to connect easily with unions representing Jeld-Wen workers in other countries, especially in Australia, Indonesia and Malaysia, where the company has significant operations. Global companies can be made to respond to global pressure, Street says, and the international dimensions of the campaign will become clearer as the union effort continues.
Back in Oregon, other elements of the local labor community support IAM’s efforts, remarks Russell Sanders, a spokesperson for the Oregon AFL-CIO. The Jeld-Wen campaign coincides with the AFL-CIO’s own “Oregon Organizing Project,” a multi-union initiative that has added some 3,000 workers to union membership rolls since 2011. Although the two campaigns are not officially linked, closer ties will likely be formalized soon, he says. The Machinists’ campaign is “important,” Sanders says, and regional labor leaders are preparing to pitch in to make it a success.
Bruce Vail is a Baltimore-based freelance writer with decades of experience covering labor and business stories for newspapers, magazines and new media. He was a reporter for Bloomberg BNA’s Daily Labor Report, covering collective bargaining issues in a wide range of industries, and a maritime industry reporter and editor for the Journal of Commerce, serving both in the newspaper’s New York City headquarters and in the Washington, D.C. bureau. He writes regularly for the Working In These Times blog, where this post first appeared.