Florida garment workers beat back boss firings, lockout

Fred Feldman ffeldman at bellatlantic.net
Tue Jul 29 19:04:40 MDT 2003



The Militant August 4, 2003


Florida garment workers
win new union victories
NLRB orders Point Blank to pay back wages
to fired, locked-out workers


OAKLAND PARK, Florida -- Garment workers here scored a new victory in
their
fight for union recognition and a contract at Point Blank Body Armor,
one of
the largest clothing manufacturers in southern Florida with nearly 500
employees.

A judge at the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) found the
company,
which produces bullet-proof vests for various police departments and
the
U.S. military, guilty of labor law violations for firing three
employees and
locking out hundreds of workers trying to organize themselves into the
Union
of Needletrades, Industrial and Textile Employees (UNITE) last year.
Judge
Ira Sandron ordered Point Blank July 15 to cease and desist from
offering
bribes and threatening employees to prevent them from joining the
union. He
also ordered the company to pay back wages estimated at more than
$300,000‹to workers whose rights it had violated.

Company president David Brooks released a statement dismissing the
importance of the ruling, but said the company will appeal to a higher
NLRB
panel.

³I am very happy, and everyone I work with is very happy,² Virginia
Salazar,
a union organizer and sewing machine operator in the plant here, told
the
news media. ³I¹m one of those people who believe that justice also
exists
for the poor, not just for the rich. We¹ve won a victory against the
company, and I trust that, although they¹re appealing, the law will be
on
our side.²

In a related victory, the Miami division of the industrial laundry
chain
Linens of the Week signed a contract with the newly recognized UNITE
local
there July 11, according to union organizer Mervilus Jean-Baptiste.
The 117
workers there won the contract only seven months after they began
their
fight for union recognition.

On July 18 workers at Point Blank celebrated their victory and marked
the
one-year anniversary of a turning point in their struggle. On that
date in
2002, managers closed the plant in response to a workers delegation
asking
the company to recognize UNITE as their union. The company called
sheriffs
deputies and private security guards to eject workers from the plant.

After the lockout the company fired three union supporters, prompting
a
six-month strike demanding union recognition and the rehiring of the
three
unionists. The walkout ended in February when a federal court ordered
the
company to reinstate the three and rehire all the strikers.

To reaffirm their unbroken spirit one year later, union partisans
organized
break-time gatherings outside the Oakland Park plant and brought
inside the
facility hundreds of red, helium-filled balloons inscribed with
³UNITE.²

³One year of struggle‹that is really a victory,² Prospere Eljuste told
Militant reporters at the celebration.

³Unfortunately, the fight is not yet over,² Anesies Jean-Gilles added.

Leonor Hurtado, another worker, stated: ³We will continue fighting
until
Point Blank signs the contract and gives us the union.²

While not yet recognized by the company, the union has a definite
presence
inside the plant here, workers said.

Ever Gonzalez, who has one year in the plant and was on strike for six
months, celebrated the gains already won. ³Many things have changed
for us
since the union got in, such as a pay raise and better bathroom
conditions,²
he said. ³Now we have water. Without the union we¹d have nothing. We
wouldn¹t have respect, either. Thanks to the union we are fighting for
our
rights.²

The crowd of workers wearing red union T-shirts far outnumbered a
company-organized counterprotest of about 30 employees wearing blue
company
shirts.

The pro-union crowd included workers won to UNITE since the strike
ended.
Marie Perlicier, who has four years at the company, did not
participate in
the walkout. Now she has signed a union card and says she is 100
percent for
union recognition. ³The union is a good thing for the workers,² she
said.

The NLRB ruling decreed that the company must pay all the workers for
their
lost hours on July 18, 2002, since the plant closure was unjustified.
It
also ordered the company to pay back wages to the three fired workers,
whom
management was forced to rehire in February under the federal
injunction.

After the strike, Point Blank relocated the replacement workers it had
hired
during the walkout from Oakland Park to a brand new facility it opened
in
nearby Deerfield Beach. It has tried to use the new plant as a
non-union
stronghold.

Since the end of the strike, UNITE supporters in the Oakland Park
plant have
organized an ongoing campaign to press for union recognition and a
contract.
They have organized plant-gate rallies at breaks and lunch time
regularly
over the last months. New members have been won to the union. A UNITE
office
is maintained across the street from the factory and organizers
continue to
work full time on the fight .

The NLRB ruling will aid the union¹s effort, workers said. It requires
that
the company post a notice in the plant in English, Spanish, and Creole
stating that workers have the right to unionize, pledging that the
company
will not threaten workers, and affirming that Point Blank will pay
back
wages as ordered by the labor board. The notice must explain that the
company was found to be engaging in unfair labor practices.

UNITE members have distributed informational flyers at both plants
letting
workers know about the latest union victory.

Response at the Deerfield Beach facility to the union outreach
reflects
polarization. Union organizer Maria Revelles said July 18 that more
workers
took flyers after the NLRB ruling than during previous efforts, and at
least
one stopped to ask questions about the significance of the decision
for the
replacement workers. One worker there told Militant reporters that the
flyers generated a lot of discussion inside that factory.

Union supporters are a small minority in the Deerfield Beach plant so
far,
another worker said. Like the majority in that factory, he is
originally
from Haiti, and was hired as a replacement during the strike. ³I
support the
efforts of the union on behalf of the workers,² he stated. ³The
company
should stop trying to manipulate us.²

Nicole Salgado contributed to this article.




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