Labor Law in Reality: A Personal Experience

Shortly after I graduated high school (and had gotten thrown out of my first college–UNH–after the first semester), I got married. Naturally, I needed a job. I found one in the warehouse at a company called Booth Fisheries that had just opened a plant in Portsmouth. The Home Office was in Brownsville, Texas, and they brought their Texas management style with them.

# The minimum number of breaks the law required were given and for the minimum amount of time–10 mins–even though most NE companies had moved to 15 or even 20 by then. These breaks were rigidly enforced, to the point where women who had to pee outside break-time weren’t allowed to leave the line long enough to go to the bathroom. This created health problems for a number of them.

# Workers were regularly stopped on their way out the door to go home and accused of stealing stock or equipment, not only without any proof that they had done it but without any proof that anything had been stolen. Some had to submit to personal searches of themselves and their clothes. No one was ever found to have stolen anything; the company considered that proof that the searches had stopped employee thieving even though nothing had been stolen to begin with, so they kept doing it despite employee protests.

# Managers had been told to yell at people without reason on the theory that intimidation would keep employees ‘on their toes’, and did so most of the day. The smallest infraction or mistake was enough to get you hauled ino the line manager’s office and yelled at so loud we could hear it over the machines. Two mistakes and they would cut your pay rate; three and you could be fired. Some were.

# ‘Orientation’ for new employees consisted largely of a video of lies about unions stealing from their members and a lecture on the general evils of unions.

# When the company was negotiating for the contract to provide McDonald’s with the patties for its fish sandwiches (a contract worth $$millions$$ to Booth), in order to prove that they could handle the size of the order they sped the line up so fast that none of the workers could keep up with it and the machines kept breaking down. Supervisors roamed the lines verbally abusing anyone who had trouble keeping up. One woman whose machine kept breaking down was accused of deliberately sabotaging it and slapped across the face by a manager. Another was fired because she dropped a box of fish sticks.

# Workers were often berated, sent home early without warning or kept late without choice as punishment for a mistake or talking back to a supervisor. If they balked, they were disciplined or even fired. One woman who was ordered to stay 3 hrs after her usual quitting time was fired when she insisted on leaving the line to call her husband to tell him–he was driving ten miles to pick her up.

As things went from bad to worse, anger began to build up. A couple of us began to say we needed the protection of a union, and when enough people agreed we called a representative of the Amalgamated Meat Cutters. We had several meetings at various employees’ homes, circulated a petition in secret, and when there were enough signatures, the AMC rep presented the petition to management and demanded a vote.

From that point on, things got nasty. The company found various pretexts to prevent union reps from talkimg to us on-site before the vote, sometimes by force. They identified the people they thought were behind getting the union and harrassed them–threatening phone calls in the middle of the night, black cars with burly men in them following us wherever we went, anonymous death threats by mail and hand-delivered. Some of us who were careless were even beaten when they could catch us alone. One guy suffered a broken arm and cracked ribs, and quit both the union effort and the company. Companies where spouses worked were called by Booth reps and told to stop their wives from working for the union or Booth would get them fired.

The union protested these actions to the State Labor Board, but the NHLB was composed of businessmen who hated unions and they did nothing. The threats and beatings were reported to the police, but they said that unless we–we–could prove that Booth was behind them, they couldn’t do anything. I said to one of them ‘Isn’t that your job?’ and he ordered me out of the station under threat of arrest for ‘disturbing the peace’.

The union reps did what they could to keep us calm but as the vote approached, the company switched tactics. The brass from Brownsville–the President, a few VP’s, a couple of corporate lawyers–arrived and took over. One-by-one we were each taken into the cafeteria and made to sit before a table full of glowering suits who demanded to know how we were going to vote. They said they had a right to do this. They didn’t. It’s illegal. But the low-income folks they’d concentrated on hiring didn’t know that.

We were asked what our complaints were and they were dutifully written down. They told us in detail the changes they planned to make to address those complaints; those promises were NOT written down and from what people said when they came out of the cafeteria, it seemed they had promised a lot of people a lot of different things. After the promises of improvements, the suits turned to threats. Run down the list in the previous post–they did or promised to do all of them, one after the other. Plus one that isn’t there: we had a lot of women working in that plant, so the suits told the married workers that if they voted for the union they’d see to it their husbands lost their jobs.

When I went in, they told me right off the bat that they had me tabbed as a ‘troublemaker’ and that whether the union won or lost, I was going to be fired as soon as the vote was over. Then they dismissed me. They didn’t ask me how I was going to vote. They didn’t care.

The threats and promises worked. The union was voted down, though not by much despite all the heavy-handed tactics; that meant that the union threat was still in the air. Within a month, all the ‘troublemakers’ were gone. They got rid of me by having a young supervisor hide behind a crate in the warehouse. When I passed by on my forklift, he jumped out from behind the crate and threw himself against the side of the fork lift claiming I had ‘run him down.’ He then fired me for ‘recklessness’.

I protested first to an unemployment inspector and then to the Labor Board. The inspector let me and my witnesses speak our piece, then found for the compoany without their having to say a word in their own defense. The NHLB was exactly the opposite: they listened to the company and upheld their action without letting either me or my witnesses say a word in defense.

The company, needless to say, kept none of its promises to improve conditions and they continued to deteriorate. Employment at the plant was like a revolving door–as one was going in, two were coming out. The company complained that it was constantly understaffed and couldn’t keep workers. A year or so later, they closed the plant because, as an executive explained to the local paper, ‘People in New Hampshire don’t want to work.’

I know the law gives us rights on paper, but where’s the reality?

It’s a good question. Paper law may favor the worker but practical law sides with the owners. When it comes to labor law–

In the halls of justice, the only justice is in the halls.–Lenny Bruce

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