Exploited employees take on upper management

Photo by Elana Knopp Strikers line the street to protest what they feel are unfair working conditions.
Photo by Elana Knopp
Strikers line the street to protest what they feel are unfair working conditions.

LINDEN, NJ — It was a take-no-prisoners labor strike that lasted three days. Workers of Laminated Industries in Linden were out as early as 7 a.m., clad in red T-shirts from their union, the Retail, Wholesale, Department Store Union. They waved large signs. “Workers are not animals,” read one. “Latino workers have American rights,” read another. Passing cars and trucks blasted their horns in solidarity with the workers, who gathered across the street from the warehouse.

On the third day of the strike, company owner Mendel Schwimmer drove his car through the factory’s gates at about 9 a.m. He was greeted with shouts of, “no contract, no peace.” Workers and union members ran after his vehicle. Schwimmer pulled around to the back of the building.

The workers at the paperboard and paper facility had walked off their jobs last week in protest to what union representatives and employees cited as unfair labor practices, including steep pay cuts, unsanitary and unsafe conditions, and low wages.

But after three tense days of walking the picket line, the employees at Laminated Industries in Linden are now back to work. Both sides now appear to view the back-to-work decision as a cooling off period.
The turning point came on day three of the strike, when counsel for Laminated Industries owner Schwimmer reached out to the RWDSU and agreed to provide the information they had been requesting. No concessions have been granted, but the company did release documents that the union said they had been demanding for months. At that point, Schwimmer asked that workers return to work as soon as possible. That request was granted, and the workers returned the next day. According to union representatives, negotiations with Schwimmer are now scheduled to resume May 21.

And although workers are back on the job, hard feelings haven’t gone away. Some of the workers involved in the strike expressed doubt that Schwimmer will come to the bargaining table, or he will negotiate but not put forth a reasonable plan for the future. But people say they are willing to listen.

For a few days, though, tempers were hot on the picket line. Emotions were running high, and many employees, clearly angry, vocalized their concerns. Unfortunately, Schwimmer refused to speak with LocalSource, as did all of his representatives. Workers shared a litany of complaints and accusations that went unanswered by upper management.

According to Danny Righetti, of RWDSU Local 262 in Kenilworth, the union has been trying to negotiate with Schwimmer for eight months without success. Righetti said that Schwimmer has been giving union representatives unreliable documentation regarding wages, which he said has made reaching a workable agreement nearly impossible.

“We are on strike because he won’t sit down and bargain with the workers,” said Righetti of Schwimmer, “Since we’ve been out here, employers have been calling workers on their cell phones telling them to get back to work.”

According to union representatives, 38 employees walked off the job, while five — whom he characterized as fearing retaliatory measures — decided to remain at their posts.
Jorge Santos, an employee of the company for 13 years, said during the strike that going out on strike was the only way to correct the injustices that he and his fellow workers have suffered through for too long.

“We need better conditions,” said Santos. “There are holes in the roof — the roof is leaking,” he said, citing the dangers of the close proximity of electrical equipment to the leaking, pooling water.

Santos also said that working conditions at the company are intolerable.
“We don’t have a good place to eat and there is no hot water,” said Santos. “The bathrooms are dirty, the lights are broken. We get one week off a year and no sick or personal days.”
Management, unfortunately, did not make themselves available to respond to any of these allegations.

Leoncio Guaman, who has been working at Laminated for 36 years, said that his pay had been cut by $225 a week.

“What we need from them is correct information,” said Ben Townsend, communications coordinator for RWDSU, “what people are earning, what they are doing. We’re trying to negotiate a contract. They give us inaccurate information. They’re trying to stymie and delay the negotiation process and it makes it harder. The workers here kind of got fed up with it.”

According to Townsend, many of the workers are undocumented and have put up with poor working conditions out of fear. “He pretty much exclusively hires Latinos,” said Townsend of Schwimmer. “I think he does it because he thinks he can take advantage of them.”

Tom Walsh, president of RWDSU Local 262, said that good faith needs to be established on the part of Schwimmer.

“All we want is a fair contract,” said Walsh. “He’s taken advantage of these people for 30 years. He can’t get away with it for that long,” he said of Schwimmer. “We told him they needed to bargain in good faith. It’s been eight months and we’ve only sat down twice. He’s got to come to the table and negotiate a fair contract. This practice continues and it’s a shame. They just want to organize their rights and they are not being allowed to do that,” he said of the workers.

Walsh maintains that Schwimmer mistreats his workers.

“I don’t think workers should come to work every day and feel disrespected,” said Walsh. “It’s disgusting, and Mendel Schwimmer is disgusting. You get away with something for so long that you feel it’s your right. I hate to say it, but today in America there are more Mendel Schwimmers out there.”

Danie Tarrow, collective bargaining representative for RWDSU, said that she arrived from Ohio in February to assist with the negotiations.

“My role is to support the workers,” said Tarrow. “Their contracts are as important as any major company’s contracts. Our president, Stuart Appelbaum, sends his message that our union supports them a hundred percent. We will continue to fight with them until they get a fair and just contract. If the employer continues to be dismissive and refuses to be fair to these workers, our union will utilize all its power to apply pressure until we get a fair contract.”

Although workers are now back on the job, Walsh expressed concern. “I’d like to say we’re heading in the right direction, but this guy has been very difficult,” said Walsh of Schwimmer. “His workers want change, and they’re willing to stand up for their rights. I’m suspicious about it. It’s hard to believe he’d just roll over. We had him at the table and he wouldn’t negotiate. This guy has taken advantage of immigrants. He has these workers and he doesn’t even know their names. I truly believe that he feels that he’s allowed to treat them like this. He is the worst I’ve come across, and I’ve come across a lot of bad people.”

A call to Linden Mayor Derek Armstead’s office elicited no knowledge of the strike. In addition, the mayor’s office had no knowledge of Laminated Industries. And, unfortunately, we were unable to speak with members of management at Laminated Industries.