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A socialist newsweekly published in the interests of working people
Vol. 67/No. 26August 4, 2003

 
lead article
Florida garment workers
win new union victories
NLRB orders Point Blank to pay back wages
to fired, locked-out workers
 
Militant/Nicole Salgado
UNITE members at Point Blank Body Armor in Oakland Park, Florida, rally outside plant July 18 to celebrate NLRB ruling. The labor board instructed the company to give back wages to three workers it fired last year in the middle of a union-organizing drive, and hundreds of others it locked out for a day. On factory wall are silhouettes of paratroopers landing, advertising bullet-proof vests the company manufactures. Workers say the ruling will aid their ongoing struggle for union recognition and a contract.

BY MARK HAMM  
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.

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

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 “UNITE.”

“One year of struggle—that is really a victory,” Prospere Eljuste told Militant reporters at the celebration.

“Unfortunately, the fight is not yet over,” Anesies Jean-Gilles added.

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

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. “Many things have changed for us since the union got in, such as a pay raise and better bathroom conditions,” he said. “Now we have water. Without the union we’d have nothing. We wouldn’t have respect, either. Thanks to the union we are fighting for our rights.”

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. “The union is a good thing for the workers,” 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 union’s 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. “I support the efforts of the union on behalf of the workers,” he stated. “The company should stop trying to manipulate us.”

Nicole Salgado contributed to this article.

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