In the beginning, workers were not afraid.
On the morning of January 11, sick of unsafe working conditions and unfair pay, dozens of workers at Portland Specialty Baking marched into the company president’s office and asked for voluntary union recognition.
It was early 2015 that BCTGM Local 114 (Portland, Ore), with assistance from the BCTGM International Union and the AFL-CIO, launched an extraordinary campaign to help organize workers at the bakery.
Organizers met with workers for nearly a year, listening to their stories, while uncovering the major issues workers in the bakery faced. Workers in the plant complained of unsafe working conditions, the need for safer and more modern equipment, scheduling issues, and below average pay and benefits for the industry in the Northwest.
Initially, communication was a challenge for the organizers as Portland Specialty Baking’s workforce is overwhelmingly comprised of immigrants and refugees, divided into pockets of different nationalities and language groups. NLRB election notices, for example, were translated into Arabic, Burmese, Chukkese, Khmer, Laotian, Nepalese, Russian, Spanish, and Vietnamese. However, through perseverance and the help of interpreters, inroads were made.
Despite a majority of workers having signed union recognition cards, the company brought in a professional union-buster, who led presentations at the beginning of nearly every shift, for two weeks. Workers were then called in one by one for individual meetings with two or three managers at a time, and most workers were called in multiple times. When the election took place in early February, a majority of workers were afraid of company backlash and voted against union representation.
Meanwhile, the company aggressively cut union access to the workers. Not only were union organizers not allowed into the plant to talk to workers, but they were ordered off the property.
In a meeting with company President Josh Richardson, Local 114 Financial Secretary-Treasurer Terry Lansing asked if Richardson would allow a union representative on site so that employees could hear both sides. He refused.
“I asked him, ‘Have you been inside the homes of your workers and seen their children huddled in their coats because they can’t afford heat? We have,’” recalls Lansing.
BCTGM International Director of Organization John Price reflects on the effort noting that it is a key example of why American workers need card check recognition. “In January, a large majority of the workers here wanted to join the BCTGM. They were excited to become union members and begin bargaining a first contract. And yet, after an alarming anti-union campaign that focused on fear and intimidation, many of those workers reluctantly changed their support.”
According to Lansing, the union had more than 60 percent support among the workforce going in to the election. “There was a lot of fear in the plant, even among those in favor of joining the union. At the end of the day, the constant harassment, surveillance, threats and promises were too much to overcome,” recalls Lansing.
Despite the union election loss, workers at Portland Specialty Baking have not stopped fighting for their rights on the job. Working with the non-profit group Northwest Workers’ Justice Project, six months after the election, seven workers filed a class action lawsuit against the company.
According to the lawsuit, Portland Specialty Baking has neglected to pay workers the proper overtime wages. Oregon law states that workers in manufacturing facilities must be paid overtime after ten hours (in a day) and cannot work more than 13 hours a day. The lawsuit also charges the company of illegally discouraging workers from using sick leave they’re entitled to under Oregon law.
As early as this summer, the same workers who voted the union down in February are fighting to organize support for another representation election.
“They can see that things in the plant have not changed and in some cases have only gotten worse. So, we’ll continue to support and organize until these workers have dignity and respect on the job,” says Price.
In July, the company settled all NLRB charges but Local 114 has subsequently filed two additional federal charges against the company for wrongfully terminating two union supporters.
Specialty Baking makes pretzels, cakes, bagels and muffins for Starbucks, Franz (US Bakery), Safeway, Costco and Winco.