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Organizing 2.0

Savvy Online Campaign Yields Victory for N.Y. Can Plant Workers

December 28, 2010

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A unique campaign to boost membership in New York may be a harbinger of future efforts to strengthen workers’ voices on the job, where laptops can be as important as leaflets.

Nonunion workers at Anheuser–Busch InBev Metal Container Corporation in Newburgh, who make cans for Budweiser beer and other brands, were worried about their futures after the company was sold in 2008 to a Belgian group.

Employees reached out to Local 363 last spring for support – but the fear of captive-audience meetings, harassment and other actions by the employer left many at the plant wary of how to press forward without management sidelining their efforts.

So organizers got crafty and set up a special blog strictly for the 164 employees to debate, strategize, air concerns and ultimately come together for victory, all while avoiding many of the union-busting tactics so common in most campaigns.

Lead organizer Sam Fratto said the anonymous nature of the site – where workers did not have to use their real names – ensured that employees could express their views and ask questions without the threat of reprisals from management. Said Fratto, who serves as the local’s senior assistant business manager:

This was basically like having a 24-hour-a-day union and campaign meeting. It got the workers involved and allowed people to weigh in with questions and concerns before or after their shifts. It showed that they didn’t have to be afraid to speak their minds.

Rick Lewis, a 20-year veteran of the plant, said the blog “made the impossible possible.”

Fratto explained:

They were afraid to talk among themselves on the floor. They’d tried organizing the plant a few years back with a different union, and the bosses retaliated – they even fired some folks. But this time with the blog, nobody’s jobs were in jeopardy because management couldn’t single out who was for or against the union.

It also became apparent to us that the company knew about the blog and was monitoring it daily – but we didn’t have anything to hide, so that didn’t matter. What mattered was that people felt comfortable coming forward with their ideas about how to build a better workplace.

The company set up its own version of a site – but it lacked two-way communication, only plugged the company’s talking points and fell flat with the work force, Fratto said. And despite management’s efforts to hone in on pro-union workers, captive-audience meetings couldn’t refute what the workers were reading on Fratto’s blog. He said:

They can’t top this. The company tried to get people to spill info about the campaign, but the workers just stayed silent. And since nobody’s wearing T-shirts or handing out stickers or fliers, who could they put the pressure on? Nobody.

Fratto started the blog last June with a straightforward post titled “Fellow Can Plant Workers: Follow Us Here.” He wrote:

In these tough economic times, it is very stressful for every middle-class family when it comes to worrying about work or what will happen at work. It is less stressful when you work under a written contract. This election will be successful because it is being handled by the workers themselves – as a group.

Check back here frequently for updates, information and the truth.

A word-of-mouth buzz about the blog grew, and Fratto’s flagship post generated more than 200 comments, most of them positive.

Wrote one commenter:

Thank you for creating this … I believe it is what we needed to balance out what we are told during the workday by management.

Another wrote:

This site is great. We need a safe place away from work to share our thoughts.

The next few months ushered in a fluid campaign, a successful  election last August – where more than 75 percent of the work force signed cards – and what Fratto calls a productive first round of negotiations in December, where negotiators have raised issues regarding disciplinary procedures, overtime, scheduling, medical leave and other policies.

Employee Joe DeStefano, 49, has been at the plant since it opened in 1988. He said there’s been a significant change in staff/company relations that he hopes will carry through to a collective bargaining agreement and beyond:

Management has been treating us respectfully and things are going pretty smoothly right now. People are working together better than before the campaign. The common goal right now seems to be more focus on doing things right and making our plant the best that it can be.

We want to show the company, and the country, that we are unique, dedicated, focused, skilled and willing to make our plant an example to all – to show that the IBEW workers at Newburgh are willing to strive for perfection and achieve excellence in all that we do.

Local 363 officials said they are impressed with the tenacity and camaraderie of the new members. Business Manager/Financial Secretary John Maraia said:

They understand the power associated with having a written contract to work under. The workers knew they had to take steps of their own to protect themselves. We are glad they had the courage to take those steps and we welcome them into the IBEW.

Said Fratto:

We invite the entire IBEW membership to visit this blog and offer encouragement to these brave members.


Send your own message of solidarity to the workers while they negotiate their first contract by visiting www.canplant.blogspot.com and posting a comment.