[nyfoil-l] 9/1 Brooklyn, NY: Meatpacker in Brooklyn Challenges a Union Vote

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Wed Sep 3 04:29:26 CDT 2008


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Meatpacker  in Brooklyn Challenges a Union Vote 

By STEVEN GREENHOUSE  

September 1, 2008
New York  Times

http://www.nytimes.com/2008/09/01/nyregion/01union.html?th&emc=th  


Agriprocessors the Brooklyn-based company that is the nation's  largest 
kosher meat producer, is well known for the labor troubles at its  meatpacking 
plant in Iowa - federal agents detained 389 of its workers as  illegal immigrants 
in May, and labor officials in Iowa have accused it of  employing 57 under-age 
workers.

But Agriprocessors is also having labor  troubles closer to home, with the 
company asking the United States Supreme Court  
<http://topics.nytimes.com/top/reference/timestopics/organizations/s/supreme_court/index.html?inline=nyt-org>  
 to overturn a vote to unionize at its distribution center along the Brooklyn 
 waterfront. 

If successful, the company's appeal could have repercussions  at companies 
across the country: it is trying to persuade the Supreme Court  
<http://topics.nytimes.com/top/reference/timestopics/organizations/s/supreme_court/index.html?i
nline=nyt-org>   to rule that illegal immigrants do not have the right to 
join labor  unions.

In September 2005, the company's Brooklyn employees voted 15 to 5  to 
unionize, with one ballot challenged. The workers, most of them immigrants  from 
Mexico, complained of low pay, not receiving time-and-a-half for overtime  and not 
having health insurance or paid holidays. 

"It was a dirty place  to work, and they treated some of the workers real 
bad," said Lucilo Brito, a  former Agriprocessors truck driver. 

Days after the vote, Agriprocessors  stunned its employees by announcing that 
it would not recognize the union  because, it said, it had just discovered 
that 17 of the workers were illegal  immigrants. 

The National Labor Relations Board  
<http://topics.nytimes.com/top/reference/timestopics/organizations/n/national_labor_relations_board/index.html?inline=ny
t-org>   nonetheless ordered Agriprocessors to recognize the union, Local 342 
of the  United Food and Commercial Workers, citing a 1984 Supreme Court 
ruling that  affirmed the right of illegal immigrants to join unions.

Agriprocessors  appealed the labor board's order, with one of its lawyers, 
Richard Howard,  telling the board, "This should not be a valid vote for 
representation" because  "they're not documented workers and not allowed to work."

After  Agriprocessors refused to deal with the union, 14 of the workers went 
on strike  for seven weeks. The company responded by firing the strikers. 
(During the  strike, union officials said, management hired day laborers from a 
nearby street  corner, many of them illegal immigrants.)

The labor board continues to  insist that Agriprocessors recognize the union. 
Lawyers for the board and union  argue that it is foolish for the company to 
appeal the 1984 decision, in which  the Supreme Court ruled that illegal 
immigrant workers fall within the  definition of "employee" in the National Labor 
Relations Act and thus have the  right to join unions.

"Whether people are undocumented or not, they  deserve to have some union 
represent them," said Lisa O'Leary, executive vice  president of Local 342, which 
represents 10,000 meat, poultry and seafood  workers in the New York area. 
"That will help reduce the abuses that  undocumented workers face."

The Agriprocessors distribution center is one  of 20 or so meat wholesalers 
at the Brooklyn Terminal Market at First Avenue  near 56th Street in Sunset 
Park, where there are two long rows of low-lying  buildings with meat hooks 
hanging above the loading docks. All but a handful of  the meat companies are 
unionized.

Connected to the Agriprocessors center  are two refrigeration trailers that 
hum 24 hours a day, and parked outside are  trucks painted with the company's 
main retail logo, Aaron's Best.

Ante  Vulin, a butcher at International Glatt Kosher Meats, a unionized 
wholesaler  directly across from Agriprocessors, said belonging to the union meant 
higher  pay and better benefits.

"What's the purpose of leaving here when you  don't get more at another 
place?" said Mr. Vulin, who earns $20.25 an hour after  20 years on the job.

David Young, an organizer with Local 342, said it  was easy to get 
Agriprocessors' workers to vote to unionize because they had  talked with workers at 
other distribution centers and seen the fruits of  unionizing. 

The manager of the Agriprocessors distribution center  refused to comment 
about workplace conditions or the litigation. A company  lawyer, Arnold Kaufman, 
said it would be inappropriate to comment during  litigation - the company is 
hoping the Supreme Court will hear its appeal.  

During the organizing drive in 2005, Agriprocessors fought hard to  defeat 
the union. One worker said managers told him: "The union is not good.  
Everything they say is a lie."

The company, the labor board asserted,  improperly fired two workers for 
supporting the union. Moreover, the board said,  management sought to block the 
workers from voting for the United Food and  Commercial Workers, by announcing 
one day that a majority of its drivers had  signed up with a union known for 
working closely with employers, Local 17-18 of  the United Production Workers.

Several workers said management  representatives had pressured them to sign 
cards supporting Local 17-18, and had  done so after management told the labor 
relations board that a majority of  workers had already signed cards backing 
that union.

Labor board  officials dismissed the company's efforts to steer its employees 
into Local  17-18 as a charade. It ordered the secret-ballot vote to proceed, 
and the  workers voted to join the United Food and Commercial Workers. 

When  Agriprocessors said it would ignore the vote because it had discovered 
that most  employees were in the country illegally, the union insisted the 
company was  acting in bad faith.

"They knew all along they were hiring undocumented  workers," said Mr. Young, 
the organizer. (He wondered why, if the company was  suddenly so concerned 
about employing illegal immigrants, it did not conduct  similar checks at its 
Iowa plant.)

Agriprocessors officials said they had  no idea their Brooklyn employees were 
illegal immigrants, insisting that they  had been fooled because the workers 
presented fraudulent documents.  Agriprocessors officials said the same thing 
after the immigration  
<http://topics.nytimes.com/top/reference/timestopics/subjects/i/immigration_and_refugees/index.html?inline=nyt-classifier>   raid at 
its Iowa plant in May. 

Mr. Howard, the company's lawyer, said it  should not be possible to join a 
union "if you are not legally allowed to work,  if your working for this 
employer results from the perpetration of a fraud upon  this employer and results 
from a crime against the country."

The National  Labor Relations Board in Washington and the United States Court 
of Appeals in  Washington rejected Agriprocessors' argument that illegal 
immigrants should not  have the right to join unions. In a decision last January, 
the appeals court,  echoing the 1984 Supreme Court decision, wrote that 
allowing illegal immigrants  to join a union "helps to assure that the wages and 
employment conditions of  lawful residents are not adversely affected by the 
competition of illegal alien  employees."

Nathan Lewin, the lead lawyer in Agriprocessors' appeal to  the Supreme 
Court, said the issue should be reconsidered because there are so  many more 
illegal immigrant workers now than in 1984 and because a federal law  passed two 
years after that ruling made it a crime for companies to hire illegal  immigrants.

"The attitude of federal and local laws towards illegal  immigrant workers 
has undergone a sea change," the company's appeal says.  "Federal policy 
regarding the employment of undocumented aliens is far more  prohibitive today."

Alvin Blyer, regional director of the labor board's  office in Brooklyn, said 
he was not surprised by the company's appeals.  

"Many times employers are anxious to put off the day that they have to  deal 
with a labor union and bargain collectively," Mr. Blyer said. "Even in  cases 
where their legal position is unlikely to succeed, they find it  economically 
worthwhile to delay that day." 

Last Thursday, a butcher who  had just finished the midnight-to-9 a.m. shift 
at the Agriprocessors  distribution center said that the company had improved 
wages and conditions  somewhat since the unionization vote three years ago. 
The worker said he was  paid $8.50 an hour, got one week vacation a year and 
received time-and-a-half  pay for overtime.

"We don't get health insurance," said the worker, who  insisted on anonymity 
for fear of retaliation. And in a candid moment, he  acknowledged that he was 
an illegal immigrant.  


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