LINDEN, NJ — After more than a year of battle, the workers at Laminated Inc. are finally seeing light at the end of the tunnel.
Mendel Schwimmer, owner of the paper and cardboard plant located in Linden, signed a contract last week after months of impeding and attempting to stymie negotiations with the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union.
Schwimmer, who has had myriad unfair labor practices complaints filed against him by the RWDSU and has been pressured for months by the union representatives regarding alleged unfair labor practices and unsafe and unsanitary working conditions at the plant, finally threw in the towel right before he was to go before a judge.
RWDSU started preliminary trial proceedings late last week, and right before Schwimmer went before the judge, he agreed to sign the contract and a settlement for back pay.
According to the new contract, which went into effect March 27, workers will receive a total of $26,752 in back wages, which are owed because the union contract takes effect retroactive to September.
Workers will also receive a dollar an hour raise, sick days, three weeks of vacation time — three times what workers were receiving before — and a provision that includes the bathroom be kept sanitary and stocked with hand soap and toilet paper.
According to union representatives, this is the only contract that has ever been negotiated with the RWDSU that needed to include this bathroom provision.
Union representatives will also be allowed on the premises at Laminated Inc. in order to ensure enforcement of the contract.
Louis Capozzi, attorney for Schwimmer, did not respond to LocalSource’s request for comment as of press time.
Since May, workers have held labor strikes to protest alleged unfair labor practices, including steep pay cuts, unsanitary and unsafe conditions, and low wages, all conditions that union representatives had been addressing for more than a year.
In August, union representatives and employees rallied outside the plant alongside several public officials to demand fair contracts. The rally garnered much attention and brought the support of local community leaders.
Although Schwimmer seemed ready to sign a fair contract back in September after he sat down with attorneys and union representatives, he backed out just days later.
Then, weeks later, Schwimmer seemed ready to negotiate again. And then, once again, Schwimmer allegedly broke that promise.
Another issue, according to the union, is the seeming neglect of the Occupational and Safety and Health Administration, which was contacted by union representatives in September. Since then, union representatives say they have reached out to OSHA several times and have still received no response.
LocalSource reached out to an OSHA representative on Jan. 6, who responded at the time that, “OSHA has responded and is addressing the issues raised,” regarding the unsanitary and unsafe working conditions in the factory.
OSHA also told LocalSource that an investigation had been opened at the Laminated facility on Jan. 6 — just hours after being contacted by LocalSource.
LocalSource reached out once again to OSHA on March 24 regarding the conditions at Laminated Inc., as well as their delay in addressing these issues.
“OSHA’s investigation, opened in January, is still active and we do not comment on open investigations,” an OSHA representative said in a March 24 email.
Danie Tarrow, collective bargaining representative for RWDSU, told LocalSource that the union is thrilled that Laminated employees finally have a signed contract, and that it was the National Labor Relations Board that finally forced Schwimmer to sign a contract.
“Finally, we have a signed contract,” Tarrow said in a recent phone interview. “The labor board had to force him to sign it. We’ve never seen anything like it.”
Because of what she believed was the threat of a trial before the labor board, Schwimmer agreed to sign the contract, in which he also agreed to pay back 80 percent of the back pay owed to his employees. The first half will be paid out at the beginning of April, according to Tarrow, with the second half to be paid out soon after that.
Tarrow said that hearing from the workers themselves was the most moving part of the process.
Tarrow said that the contract includes a procedure for filing grievances, and reiterated the importance of the bathroom provision.
“It says in the contract that Schwimmer will provide a clean bathroom with toilet paper,” Tarrow said. “It calls for basic human conditions, like running water, so they can wash their hands. We’ve never had to put anything like that in our contracts, never in the history of our negotiations have we ever had to put that in.”
Tarrow said that the previously scheduled trial date of April 7 has been postponed, but not cancelled.
“If Schwimmer doesn’t go through with paying them their settlement, we have the option to go back to trial,” Tarrow said. “The trial date is not cancelled, it’s postponed.”
According to Tarrow, there are still grievances against Schwimmer, including the issue of six workers who were fired by Schwimmer, allegedly for cooperating with OSHA.
Tom Walsh, president of RWDSU, Local 262, told LocalSource that he believes that a fair settlement was reached.
“I believe we got a fair settlement,” Walsh said in a recent phone interview. “Schwimmer didn’t think it was going to happen. I know that for a fact.”
Walsh said that he is happy that workers will now get sick days and vacation days.
“The workers are excited,” Walsh said. “It’s a good starting point and you build on that in future contracts. The workers actually had me take a picture of the last page of the contract with Schwimmer’s signature on it. They wanted to see it.”
According to Walsh, any breach of contract on Schwimmer’s part will result in a trial.
“If he breaches the contract, it immediately goes to trial,” Walsh said.
Manuel Guerrero, an organizer for RWDSU, told LocalSource that despite the long and arduous battle, the union persisted and won a victory for the workers.
“I think it was a very long road,” Guerrero said in a recent phone interview. “They were down for a long time because the company made promises that they didn’t keep. We now have to enforce it.”
Guerrero said that workers can expect about $800 apiece in retroactive pay.
According to Tarrow, she, along with other union representatives, want answers from OSHA.
“We have yet to see OSHA go in there to serve them with a violation,” she said. “It’s been a couple of months and nothing yet.”
Tarrow said that the union will continue to fight for the rights of all workers, at Laminated and elsewhere.
“We’re just going to hang in there until we get justice,” Tarrow said. “It’s a matter of principle. The union is not just going to lie down and take it.”
Guerrero mirrored Tarrow’s sentiments.
“We persisted as a union and we succeeded,” he said. “We’re happy about that.”