April 29, 2005
David Grubbs and 200 fellow workers at the Osram Sylvania glass tube plant in Versailles, Kentucky, withstood a blistering and venomous anti-union campaign before a secret ballot vote in November 2003. But the best efforts of the company’s union busting law firm failed. When National Labor Relations Board officials counted votes, the majority of workers chose a voice on the job with the IBEW.
That should have been the end of the story.
But far from honoring their employees’ wishes and negotiating a first contract in good faith, the company took every opportunity to throw up obstacles, obstinately bringing unreasonable proposals to the table in rare bargaining sessions and refusing to grant workers time off for scheduled negotiations.
"We were promised that if we did vote the union in, it would take years to ever reach a contract and we would lose our benefits in the process," Grubbs said. "It looks like the company is trying to make good on its promise."
At an April Capitol Hill briefing, Osram Sylvania worker Dave Grubbs said he and 200 fellow workers cannot bargain a contract a year and a half after IBEW representation vote.
The would-be IBEW members have been designated Local 92 but cannot truly be organized until they have a first contract. Today they are in a holding pattern, but not for long. They received notice on April 22 that the company is pursuing decertification.
But the workers have not given up. They have a Web site (http://www.ibew92.org), a recorded message line to keep members informed about negotiations and an international campaign aimed at the corporate owner of Osram Sylvania, Germany-based Siemens.
The plight of Versailles, Kentucky, glass plant workers has traveled
overseas, where European union members protest the company’s
treatment of IBEW Local 92 members at a winter demonstration
This transatlantic campaign capitalizes on the international contacts made by IBEW Fourth District Vice President Paul Witte, Fourth District International Representative Gary Klinglesmith and Manufacturing Director Bob Roberts on a recent trip to Germany, where the influence of labor unions is stronger and corporate union avoidance campaigns are less acceptable.
Germany’s largest union, IG Metall, and unions from seven other European countries, have been participating in a public campaign to embarrass Siemens to encourage Osram Sylvania to negotiate with the IBEW. Klinglesmith said the unions have staged demonstrations at corporate meetings and Siemens-sponsored public events and succeeded in getting the story into the mainstream news media.
"They have been making life miserable for Siemens in Germany," Klinglesmith said.
Labor laws are different in Germany, allowing, among other benefits, union representatives to hold seats on corporate boards of directors. At a Munich meeting of the Siemens board in January, more than 100 protestors gathered outside to denounce unfair treatment of Local 92 members. After a speech given by an IBEW representative on the subject, one of the members of the Siemens board left the stage to sit next to him in solidarity.
"It’s not often that the struggle of such a small group of employees received such worldwide notoriety and support," said IBEW International President Edwin D. Hill. "But that is what it takes in today’s global economy."
Grubbs, a small town Kentucky native, said he found it hard to believe that union members in Germany were supporting their cause at Osram Sylvania. "We can’t believe anyone way over there really cares, but they do," he said. "It’s amazing how much people support you."
The transatlantic cooperation has exposed another hypocritical angle to the story. Siemens has signed and agreed to uphold a United Nations Global Compact that ensures that "all workers are able to form and join a trade union of their choice without fear of intimidation or reprisal." IBEW leaders have been assured that the American Osram team would also abide by the compact.
Grubbs appeared at a Capitol Hill briefing on April 19 timed to coincide with the introduction of the Employee Free Choice Act, bipartisan legislation that would make Osram Sylvania’s efforts to frustrate its workers’ attempt to join a union illegal. Sponsored by Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) and Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) and Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.) and Rep. Peter King (R-NY) in the House of Representatives, the legislation would provide for certification of a union as the bargaining representative if a majority of workers has signed authorization cards, mandate first-contract mediation if a contract cannot be reached with 90 days and impose stronger penalties for violations of the National Labor Relations Act.
AFL-CIO President John Sweeney said 20,000 workers were illegally fired during organizing campaigns last year. Half of all employers threaten to shutter the workplace if workers win union representation and one third of employers never negotiate a contract. "These employers are literally robbing their workers of a better life," Sweeney said.
President Hill said while the U.S. government remains a voice for freedom and democracy around the world, here at home, in workplaces from coast to coast, employers make a mockery of labor laws. "Every day, companies squash the rights of workers attempting to organize, stifling their free expression and the constitutional right to free assembly," President Hill said.
Far from losing hope, the Kentucky workers are still strong a year and a half after the representation vote, Klinglesmith said. They have been meeting regularly and have formed negotiating, bylaws and safety committees. They also have designated stewards, none of whom are recognized by management but who nevertheless function informally as employee advocates. Klinglesmith said the unit’s communications network is capable of getting information to the floor as fast as the company’s formal channels. The workers are convinced they will win the upcoming decertification vote, and they will win with a greater majority than their first election.
Klinglesmith urged supporters to visit the Local 92 Web site at www.ibew92.org and send letters to Osram’s corporate offices urging them to bargain a contract.