Florida UNITE workers score gain in strike
BY ARGIRIS MALAPANIS
AND ROLLANDE GIRARD
POMPANO BEACH, Florida--UNITE members at Tartan Textile here scored a victory through a militant strike that sent out pickets to shut down Tartan plants in other states. The decisive action and solidarity meant that after seven days on the picket line, workers returned to the job July 13 with their union T-shirts and buttons, and with plenty of pride and smiles. "We fought with dignity and won some respect, in addition to some economic gains," said Randal Preddie, a truck driver and member of UNITE--the Union of Needletrades, Industrial and Textile Employees-- at the Tartan plant here.
The previous day, the company and union negotiators agreed on a contact that provides a $1-an-hour across the board raise over three years: 50 cents the first year, and 25 cents each of the subsequent years. The settlement was approved by a large majority of the workers. Among the main demands of the unionists was a $1 hourly raise this year. Before the strike, the company had offered 25 cent increases for each year.
"We also got a pension plan, which we did not have before, and time-and-a-half pay for weekend work that the company was not paying," said Preddie in an interview with Militant reporters. "It could be better. We might not be 100 percent satisfied, but the settlement is definitely a step up from what we had before the walkout. You got to fight to get anything from the bosses," he said.
"The degree of unity in the plant, and the solidarity from Tartan workers in New York and other states that went out to support us, was important for the gains we made," Preddie explained. "We wouldn't have accomplished anything without that. The main credit belongs to the women workers, who are the majority. They were the ones who kept the spirits high on the picket line."
Houston-based Tartan Textile employs more than 3,000 workers at 28 plants across the country. Workers at these factories wash linens and surgical gowns for hospitals and nursing homes. Most of the plants are union-organized, about half of them by UNITE. None of the contracts at those plants expire at the same time as the one here.
As the company tried to bring in some scabs and shift work to other factories, UNITE sent more than a dozen workers from here to set up roving pickets and try to shut a number of those facilities down. Workers in at least four plants located in Freeport and Hempstead, New York; Paterson, New Jersey; and in Virginia, went on sympathy strikes. Job actions in solidarity with the Pompano Beach unionists also took place in Georgia, Maine, and other states. Preddie, who was part of roving pickets for several days at the New York Tartan plants, said UNITE members there kept them shut for five days.
Workers had walked off the job July 6 protesting low wages and unsafe working conditions. Most of the 220 UNITE members at this industrial laundry north of Miami made $6.15 per hour prior to the walkout and took home weekly pay of $192.
Preddie and others said the majority of workers felt it was wise to go back at this point, even though they had gotten only half the wage raise they wanted, because they thought they could suffer cracks in their ranks after 24-hour picketing for a week. He said workers felt they had strengthened the union and were in a better position to have more control over conditions on the job.
"The company could have given us $1 but they are really cheap," said Lauverta Adalphonse, a production worker. "But the sun was too hot on the picket line and we decided to go back." She also said workers had agreed that if any of them were yelled at by management when they returned to the job, then they would all stop working. "After a few days on the job, John, the supervisor, has not yelled at anybody," she said in a July 17 interview.
The agreement requires the employer to notify the union president and union steward immediately in the event of a raid by the Immigration and Naturalization Service. The majority of the workers are Haitian women. Many of the rest are immigrants from Latin America and the West Indies.
Other workers expressed reservations and wanted to stay out longer. Francisco Cruz, a truck driver, told Militant reporters outside the plant early on July 18 that he was angry at the company. He also said he didn't like the fact that most production workers voted to go back, even though the drivers, who will make up to $12.50 per hour under the new agreement, had stuck with them and stayed on the picket lines solid. This worker felt unity on the picket line could have been maintained longer and support from unionists at other Tartan plants would have continued for a while. "If we had stayed out a week longer we would have won the $1 raise."
Ready to extend solidarity
Some 200 union members voted on the proposed settlement at a July 12 meeting. According to Preddie and other unionists, 10 workers--eight truck drivers and two working in production--voted against the contract proposal and argued for staying on the picket line.
A number of the workers, however, are more encouraged not only about prospects of using union power more effectively on the job, but about extending a hand of solidarity to others in struggle. Preddie, for example, joined a July 16 solidarity picnic of some 300 workers at RC Aluminum and their supporters to tell the story of the strike at Tartan Textile and offer support. The workers at RC Aluminum, a plant in Miami producing aluminum window frames, are in the middle of a union organizing drive and have a representation election for the Iron Workers Union set for July 21.
Argiris Malapanis is a meat packer. Rollande Girard is a sewing machine operator.