Nonunion workers turn to federal labor law to challenge employers

Advocacy group files NLRB charge against Madison company after employees’ petition is rejected

By: - September 1, 2022 6:45 am
non-union pickets

Nonunion workers whose petition complaining about working conditions was rejected picket Wednesday at their employer, a Madison apparel and printing business. More nonunion workers are availing themselves of federal labor law protections. (Erik Gunn | Wisconsin Examiner)

After what they said were repeated problems with their pay and working conditions, employees at a Madison apparel and screen printing business sent the owner a petition last week describing their frustration. They wanted a meeting at which they could discuss complaints that they said included missed payroll, stifling hot work rooms and a lack of safety equipment. 

Workers described the owner as someone who yelled at employees and ignored their requests in the past. “We had the hope that the owner would change his attitude,” said one, who asked not to be named. 

But after the group presented the petition on Friday, the business owner told a worker advocate helping them that he wouldn’t meet with them because the document was filled with lies. If they didn’t recant he would consider them as having resigned, he said.

On Monday, workers say they were denied entry and told they were on unpaid leave until they took their names off the petition. 

Now, the employees — even though they don’t belong to a union and aren’t organizing one — have charged the business with violating their rights as workers in a filing with the National Labor Relations Board.

The workers involved are employed at Crushin’ It Apparel, located on the far southeast edge of Madison. All are Spanish-speaking immigrants; they number fewer than a dozen and represent just a portion of the company’s staff. 

But their actions throw a spotlight on a growing trend: the application of federal labor laws not just on behalf of workers in unions or those trying to form unions, but to other workers without union representation.

Picketing in protest

This week, the suspended workers began picketing outside the Crushin’ It Apparel office and plant in a nondescript business park. They are being supported by Worker Justice Wisconsin, an organization that helps nonunion workers with complaints against their employers. 

The eight or nine workers were joined on the picket line by nearly twice as many additional union members and activists. “We support working people — for any worker who is asking for our support, union or nonunion,” said Kevin Gundlach, president of the South Central Federation of Labor, who organized the broader union support. “It doesn’t matter whether it’s a small business owner or a big corporation — workers deserve fundamental rights.”

In an interview Wednesday, Jeremy Kruk, the owner of Crushin’ It Apparel, which makes a line of brightly decorated sportswear, denied all of the allegations that workers made in the petition and in their interviews. “We have always been open to talking to our employees about the workplace conditions,” Kruk said. 

Workers on Wednesday’s picket line painted a much different picture.

They complained that their biweekly pay, mostly delivered through bank direct deposit, was often late. “The entire time I’ve worked here, I’ve never received my pay on time,” said one seamstress, who spoke in Spanish as Frida Ballard, a Worker Justice Wisconsin staff member, translated. The employee asked that her name not be published to avoid retaliation for speaking up.

Ventilation at the business is poor, several workers said. Only one of two central air-conditioning units worked, several employees said, but the owner “doesn’t turn it on because he doesn’t want to pay the electric bill,” said one.

Safety, heat complaints

The workers interviewed Wednesday had all worked for the company for about three months. One was Pedro Hernandez, a father of two small children. He said he went to work for Crushin’ It because the Monday-Friday daytime schedule was more suitable than the heavy weekend schedule of his previous job as a food-service delivery driver. 

An experienced printer, Hernandez was hired to work in the screen printing department. Despite the strong chemicals used on the job, “we are not provided with gloves or respirators,” Hernandez said. “We often have to buy them ourselves.”

Previous requests for safety equipment and better working conditions have gone unheeded, he said.  “We tell the owner what we need, and they write it down, but we have yet to see it materialize.”

During the summer, temperatures inside the building’s work area have risen as high as 95 to 100 degrees, Hernandez said. “You end up sweating all day.”

Hernandez said he has always gotten paid in full, but that he has also reported problems to the office manager immediately, and once was paid in cash when there was a problem. 

When a manager who assigned work orders every day left, Hernandez said he was offered the job and declined it because of the abuse that the manager had put up with.  “I saw how he was treated, and didn’t want any part of that,” Hernandez said. 

Rebecca Meier-Rao, director of Worker Justice Wisconsin, said the Crushin’ It employees contacted her organization with their complaints a few weeks ago.

 Worker Justice began with a focus on helping individual workers without unions, including many immigrants, with problems such as wage theft and misclassification. In the last year and a half, however, the organization has raised money and added staff to expand its mission. 

“We have shifted to the importance of acting together rather than as individuals,” Meier-Rao said. 

Employer denies allegations

When the group of workers presented their petition to Kruk on Friday, Kruk called Robert Christl, the Worker Justice program director, who had helped them draft the document and who listed his phone number on it as a contact point. 

Kruk told Christl that he would not accept the petition because it consisted of “lies” and that if the signers didn’t remove their names from it, they were effectively resigning in his eyes.

In his interview with the Wisconsin Examiner, Kruk reiterated his stance, calling the petition’s claims “blatantly untrue.” He described the wages of employees as “25% to 35% more than [what they were] at their prior employer.”

Kruk also denied workers’ reports of having to buy their own safety equipment or cleaning supplies, and he said the plant was equipped with expensive air cooling and circulation equipment. 

“Nothing that they’re saying is true,” Kruk said, referring to the petition and to Worker Justice Wisconsin.

The company owner acknowledged that there had been a one-month period of bank-related problems. “We ran into a situation with our bank unknowingly, where our bank was declining over 50 transactions in a 30-day period,” Kruk said.

He described other payroll problems as isolated incidents, singling out one in which an employee had provided an incorrect bank account number for direct deposit.

Acting together

This week, however, Worker Justice Wisconsin filed an unfair labor practice charge with the NLRB on behalf of the workers, accusing the company of illegally retaliating against them for acting together to address problems on the job.

“Even if you’re not represented by a union — even if you have zero interest in having a union — the National Labor Relations Act protects your right to band together with coworkers to improve your lives at work,” the NLRB states on its website

Federal law generally forbids employers from imposing rules that punish employees who discuss their salaries or other work-related topics, according to the agency. And labor charges filed on behalf of nonunion workers asserting their rights to act as a group to improve their conditions are becoming more common at the NLRB. 

“This is something you’re going to see a lot more from us moving forward,” Meier-Rao said. 

Worker Justice, which gets its support from labor unions as well as from faith groups, doesn’t seek to compete with unions, she said, but instead to offer the benefit of collective action to workers not yet represented by unions. 

“We would hope to see everybody become unionized eventually,” she said. But in the meantime, “we have to see that shift now, so [nonunion workers] learn, ‘Oh, we can act together.’”

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Erik Gunn
Erik Gunn

Deputy Editor Erik Gunn reports and writes on work and the economy, health policy and related subjects, for the Wisconsin Examiner. He spent 24 years as a freelance writer for Milwaukee Magazine, Isthmus, The Progressive, BNA Inc., and other publications, winning awards for investigative reporting, feature writing, beat coverage, business writing, and commentary. An East Coast native, he previously covered labor for The Milwaukee Journal after reporting for newspapers in upstate New York and northern Illinois. He's a graduate of Beloit College (English Comp.) and the Columbia School of Journalism. Off hours he is the Examiner's resident Springsteen and Jackson Browne fanboy and model railroad nerd.

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