On the afternoon of November 4th, demolition workers at Avon, Massachusetts-based Skinner Services voted 35 to 19 to join LiUNA, the Laborers’ International Union of North America. Skinner provides demolition services on both sides of the Massachusetts/Rhode Island border, including, for example, at the Providence Place Mall.
The workers, primarily Guatemalan and Cape Verdean immigrants, had first approached Central Falls-based community organization Fuerza Laboral (Power of Workers) about wage theft, unsafe conditions and discrimination on the job at Skinner Services. Over several months, Fuerza Laboral helped the workers organize themselves and address their specific concerns through a wage theft complaint with the Massachusetts attorney general and a discrimination filing with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. The next step in this process was approaching LiUNA about a union certification vote.
The process got off to a rocky start, at least in part because the natural momentum of the organizing drive led to a certification vote four days before a national presidential election, with all the longstanding obligations that entails for union personnel. Common Ground was invited to observe a meeting between the organizers and workers held October 19th, when the LiUNA organizers announced to the workers that their election date — under the National Labor Relations Board’s recently accelerated process — was in just two weeks.
At the beginning of the meeting, where two-way translation via headphones was provided between the Guatemalan workers and English-speaking LiUNA organizers, the workers sat, mostly withdrawn and quiet, while the organizers stood and expressed their frustration, saying, “Are you guys doing this?” and “This is disappointing.” Gradually, with Fuerza Laboral Executive Director Heiny Maldonado and Rhode Island Jobs with Justice Executive Director Mike Araujo acting as intermediaries, the workers concerns about the ongoing process were drawn out, the organizers took a break and regrouped, the workers reaffirmed their commitment, as one said,"I want this dream to happen. I want people to say this happened because someone fought for me." And the meeting began to focus on preparation for the rapidly approaching election.
Everyone agreed that outreach to the Cape Verdean workers was essential, and much consideration was given to the details of this meeting. Which day? Which place? Is it better to bring the workers to the union hall next time? Is it better to show them the solid manifestation of the union’s power, or to perhaps meet the workers on their own turf where they will be more comfortable? Do we need three-way translation? To Creole? Portuguese? We’ll buy pizza… but should it be empanadas? Anyone know a good place for Cape Verdean takeout? This campaign has been low-profile so far, which seems to fit the character of the workers, but is it time for a public demonstration? Is there a specific cultural angle that will resonate with these workers? In the end, Maldonado emphasized to the workers, “You are not joining a union. You are making a union.”
For all the uncertainty of that meeting, it evidently laid the necessary groundwork for a successful conclusion to the campaign. The meeting with the Cape Verdean workers, at LiUNA Local 1162 in Brockton, was successful, and the momentum carried through to the election.
One important difference between this campaign and many others focused on immigrant workers is that these demolition laborers worked side by side with other unionized building trades workers on a regular basis. When you can see, day after day, that not only are other people on your site getting paid more, but that you are being exposed to the same hazards without the same training and protection, and without the same rights to vacation, health care and other benefits, it makes the value of the union a little more concrete than it is to the isolated modern factory or service worker.
If the labor movement is to survive in Rhode Island, it cannot just hope to maintain what it has left. It has to grow, and as the workers at Skinner Services, Eastland Foods, and other recent campaigns have demonstrated, if it is going to grow, much of that growth will be through organizing immigrant workers. It is the future, and seeing LiUNA, with its deep roots in Rhode Island, working hand in hand with Fuerza Laboral should give all working people in Rhode Island a reason for hope and optimism.