Cap workers fight for union

New Era Cap company produces all the hats for major league baseball, PGA golf and over 100 universities. Of course, the company doesn’t produce the caps, the workers do. Until April 1998, the people making them worked in Buffalo, N.Y. and Derby, N.Y. Then New Era decided to start opening factories in Alabama (three in all) where they could pay workers less and where it would be less likely workers would be able to protect themselves with a union.

According to Jason Kazlowski, secretary of Communications Workers of America (CWA) Local 14177, when people in the U.S. attend major league or university games and put on a New Era cap they believe they are supporting American union jobs. However, much of the labor is outsourced overseas to places like Bangladesh in order to pay only sweatshop wages and break union attempts.

With much of the labor outsourced overseas and the factories in Alabama having no kind of union, only the factories in New York State could claim that their products are union-made. However, even here, the plant in Buffalo has a company union that has little concern for the workers. The only real union is the CWA at the Derby plant. Because this is the only true union shop, the company has focused special attention to giving the workers there a difficult time and trying to break the union.

During the last contract negotiations the company threatened to lay off 130 workers and in February 2001 they carried out the threat. On April 21, 2001, after making its “best and final offer,” a contract that dramatically reduced wages and increased work quotas, the company demanded the members vote on the contract. It was rejected by a vote of 238 to 10. Weeks later the workers went on strike and have been picketing continuously ever since. Meanwhile, New Era has hired scabs at Derby. There has not been one true union member making their caps in the U.S. for the last 8 months.

CWA and the New Era workers have not been sitting around accepting all this, however. CWA has tried to organize the workers in Buffalo as well. In 1997 the workers attempted to form a real union here too. But, Kazlowski says, the company illegally disrupted the union drive and now the National Labor Relations Board is pressing charges against New Era.

CWA, the United Students Against Sweatshops, the Coalition for Economic Justice and Jobs with Justice have been heading up a national drive to put pressure on retail customers and universities to obey their own codes of conduct and licenses. They have called on consumers to stop purchasing New Era products until New Era stops its union busting and use of sweatshop labor. So far six major universities have decided to suspend their licensing contracts with New Era.

Jack York is a reader in Buffalo, N.Y.