LINDEN, NJ — Mendel Schwimmer is playing games. The owner of Laminated Inc., a paper and paperboard manufacturer located in Linden, is being accused, once again, of alleged breach of contract.
Schwimmer has been under pressure for months regarding alleged unfair labor practices and unsafe and unsanitary working conditions at the plant. And now, despite myriad unfair labor complaints filed against him and an agreed-upon contract, Schwimmer is still allegedly refusing to abide by agreements made with union representatives and employees.
In addition, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration told LocalSource on Jan 6 that they had “opened an inspection today at the facility,” the same day LocalSource contacted OSHA about the complaints of unsafe and unsanitary conditions at the factory.
Employees at the plant, most of whom are Hispanic and many of whom are undocumented, according to union reps and several workers interviewed by LocalSource, first walked off the job in May 2016. A three-day protest was held due to what union representatives and employees cited as unfair labor practices, including steep pay cuts, unsanitary and unsafe conditions, and low wages, all conditions that union representatives have been addressing for more than a year, they said.
In August, union representatives for the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union and employees rallied outside the plant alongside several public officials to demand fair contracts. The rally brought the support of many political figures, including Linden Mayor Derek Armstead and Union County Freeholder Christopher Hudak. Earlier that month, union representatives had tried to negotiate fair contracts with Schwimmer but, according to union representatives, Schwimmer refused to budge. In addition, Schwimmer allegedly continued to deny health benefits to his employees.
In early September, workers walked off the job once again, organizing a labor strike in response to unfair wages and poor working conditions. Just two days into the strike, Schwimmer asked workers to return to work, according to union officials.
Schwimmer then allegedly promised to negotiate a fair contract with employees and seemed ready to do so. According to union representatives, Schwimmer sat down with attorneys present and hashed out a deal back in September. The new contract included a paid vacation package, three days paid sick leave, a $1 hourly wage increase and bidding rights for higher positions to be determined by seniority, according to union officials.
But just days later, Schwimmer flip-flopped, breaching the agreed-upon contract, according to union representatives.
Then, weeks later, Schwimmer seemed ready to negotiate again. And then, once again, Schwimmer allegedly broke that promise. Now, according to union reps, conditions at the plant are worse than they were before.
Although the RWDSU has filed numerous complaints with the National Labor Relations Board against Schwimmer, there has been no movement on the part of the board.
Since September the RWDSU has been reaching out to OSHA about alleged unsanitary and unsafe conditions in the factory but with no response as of press time, according to union representatives.
According to Allen Mayne, assistant to the president and director of collective bargaining for RWDSU, Schwimmer has been stalling for a long time.
“After the second strike, Schwimmer wanted the strike to end,” Mayne told LocalSource in a phone call. “Lou Capozzi asked to meet with me to work out a
contract,” he said, referring to Louis Capozzi, of Capozzi and Adler, Schwimmer’s attorneys.
Mayne said that, although an agreement was reached, the terms were not optimal.
“An agreement was reached because the employees couldn’t afford to be on strike anymore,” Mayne said, adding that one of the terms of the aforementioned agreement was that Schwimmer would stop using a bonus system to intimidate employees.
“He uses a bonus payment system to lord over people,” Mayne said, alleging that Schwimmer has taken bonuses away from employees based on nothing more than a whim.
“We told him he had to have a legitimate reason not to give it,” Mayne said.
According to Mayne, a vote by employees — and approved by Schwimmer — was held Sept. 12 on the factory floor to decide whether to end the strike and accept the contract that union representatives had worked out with Schwimmer.
“They voted to end the strike and accept the contract, and the next day they agreed to return to work.”
But since the very day employees returned to work, Schwimmer has allegedly refused to follow through with the contract, cut employees’ pay, and not allowed union representatives on the premises, according to union representatives.
“Schwimmer refused to sign and honor the contract,” Mayne said.
The contract was supposed to go into effect Sept. 13, according to Mayne.
LocalSource reached out to Schwimmer for comment, but a receptionist at the plant said he was unavailable.
Capozzi did not respond to LocalSource’s request for comment. Brandon Williams, a second attorney for Schwimmer, also did not respond to LocalSource’s request for comment as of press time.
Tom Walsh, president of RWDSU, Local 262, said Schwimmer has repeatedly refused to address the conditions inside the facility.
“He should not be allowed to treat his workers in this manner,” Walsh told LocalSource in a phone interview. “Everyone is entitled to a workplace that is safe and clean. Schwimmer needs to listen to his employees, address issues that threaten their well-being and pay them a living wage.”
Walsh said the National Labor Relations Board and OSHA have been unresponsive.
“All these agencies we called, they should just hold their heads in shame,” Walsh said. “It’s a disgrace.”
LocalSource reached out to an OSHA representative and received a response stating that, “OSHA has responded and is addressing the issues raised,” regarding the unsanitary and unsafe working conditions in the factory.
When LocalSource asked for the date of OSHA’s response, OSHA stated that an investigation had been opened Jan. 6, just hours after being contacted by LocalSource.
“The Avenel Area Office opened an inspection today at the facility with regards to the items raised in September. The previous inspection related to an incident in July was closed in December.”
The previous inspection referred to an OSHA investigation into an incident at the plant that occurred months ago due to exposure of electrical wires to water on the plant floor. According to union representatives, water pooling on the factory floor is a common occurrence at the plant.
Mayne said Schwimmer has violated every term of the agreed-upon contract.
“We reached an agreement with an attorney present, and we consulted with Schwimmer many times.” Mayne said.
Mayne also emphasized the unsanitary conditions of the bathroom and kitchen area at the factory, which he alleges are not reasonable conditions in which to work.
According to Mayne, who has visited the premises on numerous occasions, employees are not supplied with toilet paper and must bring their own; also, there’s no soap or towels in the bathroom, according to Mayne.
Mayne said that he is disappointed that the many attempts to obtain assistance from the National Labor Relations Board and OSHA have not garnered responses from either agency.
“The problem is bureaucracy when it comes to the labor board,” Mayne said. “They’re understaffed and underfunded.”
Mayne said that the situation has gone on for far too long.
“Because of the delay, the employees have lost faith in the process,” Mayne said. “The legal process has failed. The employer feels that he can ignore the law, his commitment and the contract. He is just reprehensible.”
Walsh stressed the culpability of both the labor board and OSHA. “These agencies are horrible,” Walsh said. “We criticize other countries, but look what we’re doing in this country.”