By Michael E. Miller
By Ryan Yousefi
By Kyle Munzenrieder
By Sabrina Rodriguez
By Michael E. Miller
By Carlos Suarez De Jesus
By Luther Campbell
By Kyle Munzenrieder
The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), the federal agency that enforces labor laws, scheduled representation elections for July 21. Two bargaining units (some 150 production and maintenance employees in one of them, more than 250 installers in the other) would vote on the same day in two separate, secret ballots.
The company protested. The Diplomat installers already were working under a union contract with RC, lawyers argued, so any other labor contract that might result from an election would be invalid. The NLRB overruled that argument.
Balloting took place at nine locations throughout Miami-Dade and in Naples, St. Petersburg, and Orlando. NLRB observers as well as a host of company and union honchos witnessed the process. Considering the hostile atmosphere at some of the plants, the voting went smoothly. There was one unpleasant incident at the RC plant at 2600 NW 75th Avenue. Several employees noticed a security guard methodically photographing all the workers wearing union T-shirts, a classic intimidation tactic that violates federal labor regulations. “[Neutral parties] had to intervene to head off a conflict between the workers and two security guards,” recounts supervisor George Gari, in an affidavit. “They sent the guards [two blocks away] to the main plant.” Gari says he followed the guards and protested to the RC production manager. Gari, who is the nephew of fired employee Robert Gari, says he ended up exchanging heated words with Raul Casares. Gari asked for the roll of film, which the guards had turned over to Casares. “[Casares] told me I was provoking him by wearing the union T-shirt,” Gari's affidavit continues, “that he was absolutely beside himself because of the [union campaign]; and then he told the security guard (disrespectfully, using an obscenity) to give me the film. But right then Raul and the security guards went into his office and they didn't give me anything.”
Twenty minutes later Gari was called into Casares's office. “Raul asked me to take off the union T-shirt. He said he had kept his promise not to fire me, but I hadn't kept my promise to not get involved in the [union] campaign,” Gari wrote. “He said he'd made me various [monetary] offers but I had rejected them, and that he was very upset with the whole situation.”
As voting wrapped up, ironworkers organizer Gregorio Cisneros (who is just as imposing as the bouncer types) retrieved the film. When the votes were tallied the next workday, the union had won in both bargaining units.
RC Aluminum, however, is challenging the validity of a large number of ballots; if the NLRB confirms even some of the challenges, the outcome of at least one bargaining unit election could be reversed. “This is a very complex matter,” cautions attorney Fleming. “The company isn't saying it won't work with the union, but this union is trying to ignore its contractual obligations.”
Union members take a simpler view of the conflict. “[The workers] are really getting shafted,” says Manuel Lopez. “They've been mistreated for such a long time they're not going to give up now. Two years ago they got a fifteen-cent raise; this year, none. It's really sad. They're willing to work, they want RC to be the biggest and best aluminum company, but all they do is work for nothing. What could they do if the union hadn't stepped in?”
For now it's unclear which RC workers, if any, the ironworkers union will represent. An August 18 hearing has been scheduled at the downtown Miami offices of the NLRB. If the labor board certifies a union victory in one or both bargaining units, the company will be required to negotiate a contract. That is, unless it wishes to appeal, which would likely cost hundreds of thousands for legal counsel.
This past August 4 an NLRB lawyer, Jennifer Burgess-Solomon, called Local 272 president Gornewicz and attorney Fleming. The subject was the four fired RC workers. “She asked if they wanted to go back to work,” Gornewicz recalls.
Burgess-Solomon was suggesting the two sides try to come to an agreement about the workers' fate and avoid setting in motion a long legal process before the labor board. “When we find some merit to the allegations,” Burgess-Solomon confirms, “we encourage the parties to settle before we issue a complaint and go to a hearing.” Union leaders consider Burgess-Solomon's encouragement the next best thing to a back-to-work order. Fleming does not.
RC Aluminum maintains that Gari, Gonzalez, and Wilson were laid off because of cutbacks in construction projects; the three contend they got the ax because they were among the leaders of the organizing campaign. They assert that RC bosses monitored employee meetings and retaliated against the most vocal participants. Lopez was dismissed the morning after he attended a rally in support of the other three. He says he and Casares had been good friends for twelve years, but the boss “made it a personal thing” when Lopez sided with the union advocates.
“I don't think they fired me because of the union,” declares Wilson, an articulate Nicaraguan with two years of service. “I know it. Because every time I'd go to a worksite to make a delivery, I'd talk to the people. I'd say “We need to unite, because we work as hard as we can and they mistreat us; they pay us poorly.' We'd talk to people out on the jobs, and Robert Gari talked to people in the shop.”