On the evening of August 30 during a tense meeting with the organizing committee of painters at J. Goodison Company in North Kingstown, business representative and organizer for the International Union of Painters and Allied Trades (IUPAT) Local 195 Justin Kelly reminded the workers what was at stake in the National Labor Relations Board union certification election that would be taking place in just two days: “This is about you and your families… how Latino workers are treated. This is about the Port of Quonset.”
At a time when labor is attempting to make a comeback in Rhode Island and across the country, every organizing drive can take on a meaning beyond just improving the lives of the workers in a single workplace, and for better or worse the greater strategic significance is always on the mind of supporters and observers.
The painters at Goodison are Latino, although not a homogenous group, representing several different nationalities, some speaking English, some not, including a range of ages. As is the case in several recent union organizing efforts we have reported on in Common Ground, workers first approached a workers’ rights community organization, in this case Fuerza Laboral in Central Falls, about issues in their workplace several years ago. Fuerza Laboral referred the workers to the IUPAT, while continuing to play an active role in the organizing drive. A union victory at Goodison would build on momentum created by recent wins organizing Latino workers by the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) at Eastland Food Products in Cranston and Bob’s Tires in New Bedford, Massachusetts.
Quonset Business Park is one of the few economic success stories of the past decade in the Ocean State, with now over 10,000 people working for businesses including Electric Boat, Greencorp -- an Irish sandwich producer, Norad -- who unloaded and processed nearly 270,000 cars in Quonset last year, and J. Goodison. Of those 10,000 workers, according to Mike Araujo of Jobs with Justice, exactly three are union, a lonely trio of United Auto Workers machinists. Despite the fact that state and local government have invested over $600 million to redevelop the area, with major occupants including Goodison working on large government contracts, extensive subcontracting makes enforcing prevailing wage regulations for government funded work difficult if not impossible.
J. Goodison Co. is a full-service marine and industrial maintenance and repair contractor with a new headquarters and shipyard facility in Quonset Business Park. They offer marine painting services to customers including the United States Coast Guard, with whom they hold eight “indefinite delivery indefinite quantity” multi-year contracts. According a December 2015 press release from the company,f their recent expansion was aided by a $6 million grant from the federal Economic Development Agency, $1.5 million in matching funds from the Quonset Development Corporation, a quasi-state agency, and a federal small business loan contributing to their purchase of a new $4 million boat lift.
A recent report from the Brookings Institution highlighted Rhode Island’s growth in “advanced industries,” including ship and boat building. These industries are supposed to drive growth across a wide spectrum of jobs, including middle-class manufacturing jobs. Yet as SIEU 1199NE Executive Vice-President Patrick Quinn told the Goodison workers at an August 11th rally, "Everybody talks about good factory jobs. They ain't good until they're union."
Blasting and painting the interiors and exteriors of ships is difficult, dangerous, specialized work, involving exposure to many potential toxins. The painters are paid from $12 to $20/hour, below the union prevailing wage for similar work, and have numerous concerns about safety, poor or inconsistent working conditions and a lack of benefits typical of low-wage, unorganized workplaces with largely immigrant workers.
As important as these big picture issues like organizing immigrant workers and those on Quonset Point are to the labor movement as a whole, the actual process of organizing a relatively small group of workers is, at the end of the day, not about about economic trends and political maneuvers, but the lives of and relationships between a handful of people. At Goodison, 47 workers were in the group who petitioned the company and NLRB for union recognition -- twenty four would have to vote “yes” to make theirs a union shop.
Kelly and the workers’ organizing committee gave Common Ground some insight into organizing on the worker to worker level through an invitation to observe the group’s last meeting two days prior to their certification election on September 1st.
13 workers joined Kelly and three IUPAT officials, Jobs with Justice Executive Director Mike Araujo, and translator Xiomara Paulino for the 6:30 meeting at IUPAT Local 195’s hall on Elmwood Avenue in Warwick, over boxes of pizza and room temperature bottled water. Headphones were distributed to provide live translation between English and Spanish.
When I arrived, Kelly and Araujo were discussing with several of the workers a copy of a document which had been distributed to the workers by management earlier that day, laying out a number of vague promises about future treatment of the workers, such as to “continue to pay competitive wages.” Some of the workers had noticed that only one of the two owners had signed the notarized document, saying “We are not stupid. They did not sign the paper.” Another asked, “Did you notice when the owner was reading his hands were shaking?” (most quotes from workers are as translated live from Spanish by Ms. Paulino). Araujo held up the paper, saying “This is some fear right here -- desperation.”
As the full meeting got underway, it was dominated by long-simmering tensions between the workers. Two older workers, who were among the first to meet with Kelly and start the organizing drive over a year ago -- but had recently signed an anti-union petition circulated by the company -- returned to the organizing group at this meeting. These two workers felt slighted by the younger workers on the committee and confronted them, “We are here face to face. Is there someone here who can call me a sellout? Why did you stop talking to me?”
Other younger workers expressed their frustration with the situation, telling the older workers, “My mortgage is behind. My family is at risk. I made a promise to Justin.” Another said, “By signing that paper, you made people confused,” but tried to bring the group back together, concluding, “Now I am not confused. I am sorry about what happened between the three of us.” After circling back to this topic several times, the group finally seemed to conclude “If they are here, it is because they are with us.”
By Kelly’s count, they had 27 “yes” votes, three more than the bare minimum required to win the election, he spoke for everyone when he said, “We have to be united. This is likely to be close.” As the emotional meeting wound down with a review of which workers were most likely to be on the fence and which member of the committee would be responsible for speaking with them before the election, it was hard not to be both moved by the emotional reconciliation that had taken place, while worried that it was necessary at two days before the close vote.
Under new NLRB rules, the period between when workers request an election and actual secret ballot has become much shorter -- in this case just three weeks. This gives management less time to pressure the workers, but Goodison still used that time to bring in a union-busting consultant and call groups of, or individual, workers in for captive audience meetings denouncing the union and making private threats or rewards to entice workers to vote “no,” exploiting any opportunity to drive a wedge between the workers.
In the end, the vote was not close, with 15 votes for and 30 against the union. Management was able to peel off enough groups of workers to win. Maybe the company will keep their recent promises to the workers and this process will have improved conditions for the workers. If not, after a year the workers can try again. It is a frustrating defeat because it was a strategic opportunity for labor to gain a beachhead on Quonset Point, and emotionally it is difficult to accept after just spending a few hours with the organizing committee, seeing their passion and commitment, and how much sacrifice and courage it takes just to get to the election. If it is hard for an observer, it can only be many times worse for Kelly and the workers who put over a year into organizing the campaign.
It was the right fight, though. I would rather know that labor fought and lost than think they were doing nothing.