In Morton, Illinois, at a welding shop for trucking company G&D Integrated, welders worked in fear that one small mistake could end up killing someone. The way that the shop floor was arranged, roughly 2,500 pound truck decks could drop on someone if a chain snapped.
“If guys weren’t paying attention and didn’t let the guy next to him know if a chain snapped or one of the rigging, one of the shackles snapped, the frame would fall right on the other guy and kill him,” Ron Rhoades, a welder at G&D, told Truthout. The tables that the welders worked on were simply too close to each other, workers said.
But when the workers tried to ask managers to move the tables for their own safety, they were brushed off. It wasn’t necessarily an issue of funding — the tables simply needed to be moved 90 degrees, no new equipment needed. Still, workers faced resistance from management, who fielded their concerns on this and other safety issues but never acted on them.
Management’s blasé attitude toward worker safety was typical in the roughly 20-person welding shop at G&D, where workers voted to unionize with the Iron Workers Union last October by a 16 to 4 vote. Workers say that they sought representation so that they could have a voice in the workplace.
“We all felt that it was pretty much just a matter of time before somebody got hurt,” said Thomas Hanley, a former G&D welder. “Other places I’ve worked with usually would listen to the people that work there and if there was a better way to do something, then they were all on board with it.”
The company came down hard on the union drive, amassing a mountain of union-busting charges in the process. Now, nearly six months later, there are only two workers left in the shop. Throughout the union-busting campaign, some workers were either fired or quit; then, on March 1, management told most of the remaining 10 or so workers that they were to pack their belongings and leave.
The Iron Workers Union has filed nearly 150 unfair labor practice charges with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), alleging that the company’s anti-union practices were illegal, according to Iron Workers Union representative Vince Di Donato. The charges “run the whole gamut,” Di Donato told Truthout, “anything from wrongful terminations, surveillance, retaliation, unilateral changes, discrimination” — a slew of common union-busting tactics that the union says violated federal labor laws.
Before the union drive, workers were berated and abused by their direct supervisor, Tony Campbell, who refused to implement safety-related changes or otherwise listen to his employees when they came to him with concerns. Shortly after Campbell was hired a couple of years ago, he hired one of his friends to manage the group, workers said — even though his friend had little to no welding experience and some of the welders had decades under their belts.
“It was Tony’s way or no way,” said Rhoades, one of the workers who initially contacted the union. Rhoades was among the group of workers who was fired in March. “There was no compromise at all, no matter what you said.”
Timing was constantly an issue for Campbell, workers said, even though the welders working in the shop last year were so efficient that they had cut manufacturing time for some products in half. Campbell would often stand on the mezzanine, where he could see over the shop floor, to time how quickly tasks were completed and to pit workers against each other. He would also time how long workers took in the bathroom; if they weren’t fast enough, he would turn off the air conditioning in the bathroom, even though it was often the only reprieve for workers on hot days.
After workers staged a march in September to demand that their union be recognized — a request that was roundly rejected by the company — management began holding mandatory anti-union meetings, surveilling and isolating pro-union workers and excluding them from meetings. The company also hired several union busters from the Labor Relations Institute, a notorious union-busting firm, which cost about $3,000 a day, Di Donato said.
“In our captive audience meetings with union busters, they would say, ‘Oh, well, Joe O’Neill, the owner of the company, he’s pissed. He’s pissed off. There’s a good chance he’s gonna close the doors, get rid of all you guys if you push this through,’” said Michael Stout, a former welder fabricator for G&D.
Around the time of the union drive, the company was bringing in record profits, which workers say was partly due to their labor. They wanted to share in those profits with the company, but asking for a raise was often a non-starter — even with the boom in business, managers would do things like pull old, frayed straps that workers had thrown away out of the trash and order employees to reinstall them.
At one point, before the union drive, managers had put off Hanley’s annual review too long, preventing him from receiving his annual 80 cent an hour raise. While other workers whose reviews were delayed would get back pay for the time that they missed, managers decided after a few months that Hanley’s review had been delayed too long and that he simply wouldn’t get his raise for that year.
The union-busting drive escalated quickly after workers overwhelmingly won their union. Pro-union workers suddenly had “points” for unexcused absences on their record despite never missing work; employees at the company are allowed 12 points before they are fired. Overtime was cut for pro-union workers only. Previous threats to the workers’ jobs became outright warnings, as managers would show them letters from G&D’s primary client, mining and construction multinational Komatsu, saying that the unexcused absences were forcing Komatsu to withdraw its contracts.
Managers also singled out workers who they knew to be pro-union. An employee who management identified as one of the original organizers had his workstation moved next to management’s office, where he was separate from other workers and could be surveilled. At one point, after the employee got knee surgery, managers refused to let him work for months, even though they had let him come back to work after he got the same knee surgery a few years ago.
Another pro-union employee was bullied by management; once, managers came up to the employee and tried to buy the Iron Workers Union shirt off of his back. “They bid against each other with [the worker] standing there, offering him money,” Di Donato said. “I think they went up to $50.”
Meanwhile, during sessions to negotiate a contract for the workers, management refused to bargain and stonewalled the union at every turn.
Di Donato says that the company’s union busting is the “prime example” for the reinstatement of the Joy Silk doctrine, a decades-old order that would require employers to provide legitimate reasons for declining to voluntarily recognize a majority-supported union and implement much harsher penalties for unfair labor practices. NLRB general counsel Jennifer Abruzzo announced last year that the agency has been considering reinstating the rule, which has been dormant for several decades. Labor advocates say that the implementation of Joy Silk would change the landscape of the labor movement, which has been experiencing a resurgence over the past few years, and make it far easier for workers to form a union.
Just reimplementing Joy Silk may not be enough for workers, however. As union membership has fallen, the NLRB has been shrinking, HuffPost reported this month. The agency’s budget hasn’t been increased in a decade, thanks to inaction from Congress, making it far more difficult for the agency to handle its growing volume of work.
Workers say that though G&D may take a hit financially due to the mass layoffs, management may consider union busting to be worth the cost. “I think they’re willing to take that hit because they’re so anti-union,” Hanley said.
Workers have also speculated that the reason the company is so determined to get rid of the union is that managers are afraid the union will spread to its truck drivers; the first worker they fired in the anti-union campaign was also the only truck driver in the unit. “They did everything they could to keep him out,” said Di Donato.
Di Donato believes that the union wouldn’t have had to file any of the labor charges if Joy Silk had been in place — and that workers could have continued at their jobs and secured a union contract by now.
“Union busting is a billion dollar a year business for a reason,” he said. “Our workers voted yes in the election. They held strong. But I’ll tell you right now, I don’t know too many groups of workers that would go through what these guys did and still vote yes.”
“Instead, these workers are out in the unemployment line looking for a job because the company broke the law multiple times,” Di Donato continued, “and they’re trying to get away with it.”