The Electrical Worker online
June 2013

'It Was Literally A Sweatshop'
Okla. Organizers Go to Bat for
Fired Tech Employees
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Oklahoma City — Dan Lee was dripping with sweat and caked with dust and debris. He'd been at his job at an electronics recycling company for just a few weeks, the majority of that time spent sorting and testing cables and wiring from old computers and telephones. That bulky, cast-off home office Compaq computer that someone bought from Circuit City in the '90s? This is where it has come to die. And Lee's job was to see if any of its proverbial organs could be donated to modern tech equipment in need of a transplant.

"It was literally a sweatshop," Lee said. Temperatures would hit levels higher than 120 degrees in the warehouse. While dozens of low-wage workers frantically went about their business — sorting and classifying discarded parts — management discussed solutions to the heat. Air conditioning? Too expensive. So as the August temperature pushed the mercury to record highs, bosses placed high-powered fans throughout the concrete facility.

Which created more problems. Plumes of dust began churning and whirling in the warehouse, choking employees and stinging eyes. But there was a solution to that too: Supervisors passed out face masks — the flimsy kind that sell at drug stores in bulk for a few cents each. "Better than nothing," one manager said, according to an unidentified worker.

"Bosses constantly told us to work faster in the dust and heat, even though it became hard to breathe and see," said Lee, 30. "We were working with box cutters and sharp utensils. It's a wonder we remained more or less accident-free."

As the weeks rolled on, more warts began showing in his workplace. An owner walked through the office chain-smoking cigars, reminding Lee's co-workers to adhere to the company's non-smoking policy. Another ordered a nonsmoking worker to sweep up the cigarette butts that littered the parking lot. A third sent a warehouse worker to clean out the owner's personal car on company time — which got the worker in trouble with his lower-level supervisor. Then there was the favoritism, the verbal haranguing, the random firing sprees, the crippled morale.

"It was pretty obvious from the beginning that things were wrong," Lee said.

Workers' promised pay increases never materialized. According to employees knowledgeable about the company's finances, the business didn't meet its target revenue goal for the most recent fiscal year — despite performing stronger than in the past few years.

So for Lee and a few trusted co-workers, enough was enough — especially when they were only getting $10 an hour and had to pay up to $200 per paycheck for family health insurance.

Reaching Out Brings Crackdown

Last December, Lee and a few co-workers reached out to IBEW organizers, he said. Soon, they were meeting with Oklahoma City Local 1141 organizer Trentice Hamm, assistant business manager Jim Griffy and JATC assistant director Rusty Walker, who handles the CW/CE program — tradesmen with experience helping change the anti-union attitudes of many employers in the state.

"These guys were treated really, really badly," Hamm said. "It was such a terrible atmosphere." Quietly, a campaign to gain the trust of Lee's fellow workers began.

"We had a few meetings with some of the key contacts, and while things were moving, they were going slowly," Hamm said. Activist workers spoke to each other in hushed tones, refrained from passing out pro-union literature and kept the nature of the campaign tightly guarded. "There was no concerted activity on the job site — we were mostly just talking and testing the waters."

In this right-to-work state with many anti-labor laws on the books and a widespread distrust of unions even among union-represented workers, Hamm — along with Griffy, Walker and Lead Organizer Craig Parkman– has honed his craft. He knows when to amplify the "we're all in this together" language and when to boil it down to basic bread and butter issues that resonate better among the skeptics.

Which is why the final meeting Jan. 18 hardly resembled anything approaching an organizing drive at all. The local hosted a watch party for the Oklahoma City Thunder basketball team's much-anticipated game against the Dallas Mavericks, inviting more workers from the company.

"We didn't want people to necessarily feel like they were coming to a meeting," Parkman said. "We just wanted to give them the chance to get to know us socially and see that though we're union, we really are just like them."

It was a typical heartland feast. Hamm's family cooked the barbeque. His two children helped serve the food. The fridge was stocked with cold beverages. And there was a raffle to win an authentic OKC Thunder jersey after the game.

"Whether it's a night of folks getting together to watch a game and break bread, or it's trying to organize your fellow workers on a job site, it's the same principle," Hamm said. "It's simple in our city — family helping family."

In many respects, the night was a celebration. Bonds were made, walls were broken down and the city's vaunted NBA upstarts cinched a win in overtime.

But it was also the beginning of the end for the campaign. That day, word had gotten out to upper management that more and more employees were leaning union. Before the watch party, Lee was "let go," he said, "for what a manager said was 'no reason in particular — just that it wasn't a good fit.'" Another volunteer organizing committee member faced the same fate that week.

In the following days, the four key VOC members — Lee, Josue Ibarra, Emery Love and Gus Dillard Jr. — were terminated for unknown reasons. The campaign was effectively squashed. Those leaning toward signing authorization cards were too scared to press on, Hamm said. And those employees most hungry for change were now left with no income and the sting of defeat.

Organizers Step Up For Fired Workers

After the watch party and in the days that followed, the mood was bleak. But Lee and his co-workers were undaunted.

Almost immediately, the fired workers talked more with IBEW organizers and learned what they could do to obtain union jobs in the area.

As luck would have it, a large construction job to expand a major data center 100 miles northeast near Tulsa was manning up rapidly. While none of the fired workers had bona fide construction skills, their experiences testing equipment at the electronics company — along with their proficient math abilities — made them shoo-ins for positions as construction electricians, construction wiremen and teledata technicians.

With help from representatives at the hall like Walker — the training director — paperwork was signed, interviews commenced, skills were assessed and training for the four new workers began. In just a few months after sucking down dust in one of the city's sweatshops, Lee was strapping on a hardhat and rugged boots as a CW-3 on a multibillion-dollar project for signatory contractor Allison-Smith. Here, he said, he enjoys the chance to learn vital career skills from veterans with decades in the trade.

"Getting my dues ticket and receiving confirmation that I was officially an IBEW member is one of the proudest moments of my working life," Lee said. While he said it's difficult to be away from his wife and son for stretches at a time, "I was determined to start on the road to learning the electrical trade and make a new life for me and my family with the IBEW. I have learned more in the past few months than I've ever thought was possible."

Lee and Ibarra — both working under recovery agreement classifications — are now making more money than they were at the electronics shop, pulling "tens" (10-hour days) most days of the week. The same goes for Love and Dillard, who now work teledata jobs for contractors OESCO and Dane Electric, respectively.

For Hamm, it all goes back to one word: family.

"This is about IBEW brothers and sisters working together across areas of expertise to better the lives for our neighbors," he said. "Between the JATC, the professional and industrial side, and the local leaders we have who are effectively putting in place the recovery agreements, it's all one process.

"We've done this before, when workers stand up for the union and face consequences," said Hamm. "The bottom line is that the IBEW doesn't leave anyone behind."

Local 1141 Business Manager Joe P. Smith agrees. "At the end of the day , unions are always helping people — and we were glad to be able to assist these new members," said Smith, who is also a member of the International Executive Council.

For Lee, who had performed retail and other low-wage work just to try to make ends meet, becoming an electrician isn't just a job.

"I absolutely am going to get journeyman status one day," he said. "I've never before experienced such a sense of solidarity and brotherhood with my fellow workers as I have with the IBEW."

And while he and his co-workers may not have won their campaign, he remains optimistic for others enduring rough treatment from management.

"While an organizing campaign may not be initially successful, no effort of workers standing up for themselves is ever wasted."

And if any old co-workers come knocking?

"I'll be there to help them," Lee said.