Union movement reawakens in rural Oregon

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The union movement is being reawakened in rural Oregon - Stayton, Bend, Chiloquin, and Klamath Falls - where employees of Jeld-Wen, one of the world's largest manufacturers of doors, windows, millwork, and specialty wood products, are engaged in a national organizing campaign with the Machinists.

The campaign began in February in response to calls for assistance from Jeld-Wen workers. The "Justice for Jeld-Wen Workers" campaign is active in 15 states and two Canadian provinces, where workers are engaged in preliminary actions required to get an election with the National Labor Relations Board.

In Oregon, Jeld-Wen employs about 3,000 workers, depending on the season and the state of the national housing market. The company was founded in 1960 in Klamath Falls and grew to become Oregon's largest privately held (all non-union) company. Its late founder, Richard Wendt, was a longtime supporter and funder of anti-worker ballot measures and political candidates in Oregon.

A 1999 Northwest Labor Press article reported Wendt gave $25,000 to the gubernatorial campaign of union foe Bill Sizemore. Wendt also worked for decades on a plan to abolish unemployment benefits, food stamps, and welfare benefits, and use the money to put recipients of those benefits to work in subsidized jobs at 10 percent less than the minimum wage.

Wendt died in 2010, and a year later the Canadian investment firm Onex Corp. purchased a 58 percent stake in Jeld-Wen in a deal worth $864 million. Onex owns many other companies and several of them have contracts with the Machinists. Likewise, Jeld-Wen's profitable European operations are produced by union workers who are paid union wages, have more social protections, and better fringe benefits.

"Those workers know that being union has made a positive difference in their life," said Chip Elliot, assistant directing business representative of Machinists District W24, based in Gladstone, Ore.

Jeld-Wen has responded to the organizing effort in the United States by hiring an anti-union consultant who is holding captive audience meetings in an effort to convince employees that working for near poverty level wages without a viable pension plan and with high-cost health insurance is in their own best interest.

Elliott said many Jeld-Wen employees work paycheck to paycheck in physically demanding and stressful jobs. Turnover is high and the company relies on a large number of temporary workers. Organizers are hearing from workers who complain about favoritism for promotions and incentive pay, safety policies that blame workers who get injured (with no follow-up to determine the actual cause of an accident), mandatory overtime with little notice and numerous allegations of supervisors throwing door and window parts at workers.

In Illinois, Jeld-Wen docked attendance points to workers who failed to show up on a day when the Illinois state police had issued a snow travel advisory and asked everyone to stay off the roads.

As the union campaign ramps up, organizers, and members have been threatened with arrest by Jeld-Wen management while engaged in lawful leafleting. In two cases, Elliott said, the threat of gun violence was directed against hand-billers.

Meanwhile, Jeld-Wen has remodeled break rooms and lunch rooms at several locations, managers are now personally handing out paychecks with a smile and a handshake and at least five plant managers have been terminated or transferred.

The Jeld-Wen workers have a Facebook page on their struggle for justice.

Michael Gutwig is Editor of the Northwest Labor Press.

Photo: Union members rally at the Oregon state capitol in support of Wisconsin's public sector unions.  AP

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