Workers testify: We organize to win respect

VERSAILLES, Ky. – On July 1, workers from Quebecor World declared their independence a few days early when they testified publicly at Kentucky’s first Workers’ Rights Board hearing. Quebecor, the world’s largest commercial printer, is headquartered in Quebec, Canada, where by law employers must recognize a union once a majority of the workers have signed cards. Quebecor operates plants in 17 countries, including three in the U.S. where workers are seeking to organize into the Graphic Communications International Union. Quebecor has responded with threats and intimidation.

The Quebecor plant here employs 750 people. Laura Drury has worked in the pressroom at the Versailles plant for 25 years. “The last time we tried to organize, the company said they would close the plant if we voted for the union,” she told the board and the 200 audience participants. “Now we want a card check so that we don’t have to go through the threats.”

Lucy Frost, a pressroom worker for 28 years, told the panel, “Workers have to pay $60 a week for health insurance and the cost keeps growing.” She had been called to the manager’s office a number of times and told to curb her union activities. Tim Neat, a stacker/operator, recently returned to work at the Versailles plant. “I thought I’d entered the amputee ward,” he said, noting that many workers have lost parts of their hands in the machinery. “They have replaced four- or five-member crews with three-person crews,” he explained. “We want to be able to go home and hug our families with full hands and full arms.”

Steve McDonald, a 36-year employee, said Quebecor hired 100 to 150 “temporary” workers, mostly Latinos, who are treated worse. He said that even though some of these workers have worked there for four years, Quebecor never gives them an opportunity to move into regular jobs with benefits.

Dean Compher, a press operator for 10 years, said, “The last time we tried to get the union, they shut down the presses, forced us to watch videos, and threatened us with closing the plant,” he said. Don Butler, too, was at Quebecor during the last union campaign. “They brought you into meetings to scare you,” he said. “After 45 days of going through bombardments, I voted no.”

Lloyd Mayes traveled from the Mt. Olive, Miss., plant where he has worked for 22 years to add his voice to the cry for justice. Mayes, who is African American, said that 80 to 90 percent of the workers there are Black. “The way they treat us – I was told ‘I don’t want you to talk to nobody, no time.’ This from a supervisor – I have kids as old as he is,” said Mayes. “We are organizing to win respect.”

Democratic State Rep. Joni Jenkins of Louisville chaired the Workers’ Rights Board. She was joined on the panel by members of the local clergy and leaders of community groups, including the NAACP.

Jenkins announced that Quebecor had been invited to present its position at the hearing but failed to show. While the board left the stage to deliberate, Stewart Acuff, AFL-CIO organizing director, said, “The assault on the right to organize has so weakened unions that real wages today are less than they were in 1973. From 25 to 30 percent of our children grow up in poverty. … There is a retirement crisis, a health care crisis, a growing gap between the very rich and the rest of us.” He said that with work it is possible to pass the Employee Free Choice Act next year. The bill would require certification of a union upon a showing of a majority of cards and would triple the penalty for illegal firings. The bill now has 205 sponsors in the House and 32 in the Senate.

The Workers’ Rights Board returned with a preliminary report. The board will contact top Quebecor management in Quebec. It will call on the company to respect the workers’ right to organize, to grant the workers neutrality and card check recognition, and to begin training programs to assure safety on the job. The Workers’ Rights Board, a project of Kentucky Jobs with Justice, is designed to bring the power of the community to bear where the National Labor Relations Board is ineffective in enforcing the freedom to organize.

The author can be reached at pww@pww.org.