Sullivan County Business Challenges Workers’ Right to Organize


On March 3, 2010,  The National Labor Relations Board’s  (NLRB)  Buffalo, NY office issued a press release stating  it was “…seeking a federal court order to force an egg processor, Deb-El Food Products, to rehire seven fired union supporters and begin contract negotiations with the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) union.”*

This is big news for Sullivan County, NY where few workers know what the “NLRB” is and even fewer have asked the independent federal agency to ensure a Collective Bargaining vote is conducted fairly and equitably in their workplace.

In 1935, the U.S. Congress enacted the National Labor Relations Act (29 U.S.C. §§ 151-169) which established the National Labor Relations Board. (NLRB)   In deciding  its action  was necessary,  Congress said,  among many other things,    “The inequality of bargaining power between employees who do not possess full freedom of association or actual liberty of contract and employers who are organized in the corporate or other forms of ownership association substantially burdens and affects the flow of commerce, and tends to aggravate recurrent business depressions, by depressing wage rates and the purchasing power of wage earners in industry and by preventing the stabilization of competitive wage rates and working conditions within and between industries.” (Italics added for emphasis.)

In sum, the National Labor Relations Board was established to serve two primary functions:

  • to prevent and remedy unfair labor practices, whether committed by labor organizations or employers, and;
  • to establish whether or not certain groups of employees desire labor organization representation for collective-bargaining purposes, and if so, which union.

In the current  Deb-El case,  the  NLRB investigated the company’s actions and found   it had  illegally interfered with its employees’  right to debate and establish a Collective Bargaining Unit.

More, Deb-El employees have alleged  the company, in its efforts to block a union vote, committed violent and inhumane  acts such as:

  • beating  an employee with a tire iron;
  • forcing an employee  to eat broken egg material off the floor; and
  • denying   employees  access to bathroom facilities

On Monday, March 22, 2010,   several Hudson Valley advocacy groups held a press conference at the Sullivan County Government Center in   support of  employees at Deb-El who risked much to join  UFCW Local 342.

Milan Bhatt, Executive Director of The Workers Rights Law Center, which advocates for low wage workers and is based in Kingston,  NY,  welcomed the press and public and stated,  “…the Center stood in strong support of  the right of Deb-El workers to bargain collectively.”

The Rural and Migrant Ministry,  which  has a broad and inclusive mission of  service to rural families, youth and workers, was represented by  Ruth Faircloth who said,  “One million people of faith feel that our men and women in food production have the right to be treated decently.  Our Ministry is deeply disturbed by testimony and reports… that Deb-El  punished its  workers for attempting to organize.  We support the NLRB in its efforts to right these wrongs.  Workers cannot organize in an atmosphere of violence.”

Eric Monroe of the Sullivan County Human Rights Commission and the NAACP reaffirmed  “the right of any worker to earn a decent wage”  as did Eileen Weil,  another member of the Commission who spoke on behalf of Sullivan Peace & Justice.

An NLRB Hearing convened right after the press conference  to consider,  according to the gathered organizations,  “…reinstatement of  [terminated]  workers,  awards of back pay and  a bargaining order requiring Deb-El to recognize UFCW Local 342 as the representative of workers.  On December 30th 2009, the Regional Director for the NLRB’s Region 3 Office in Buffalo ruled in favor of the workers and issued an extensive complaint outlining Deb El Foods’ misconduct.”

Despite NLRB having already ruled in favor of the workers,  this current hearing and subsequent appeals by Deb-El could extend for months.**

Workers who have questions concerning workplace practices,  rights to organize and other issues that impact the heart of families and their communities, are encouraged to contact any of the organizations linked in this article.

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* In explaining its action,  The NLRB stated, “The petition filed today in federal district court argues that action is urgently needed.  ‘Unless injunctive relief is immediately obtained, it is anticipated that Respondent will continue its unlawful conduct…with the result that employees will continue to be deprived of their fundamental right to organize for purposes of collective bargaining.’  A majority of the Thompsonville facility’s workers signed cards in mid-May seeking a union election. In the weeks before the late June election date, according to the petition, the employer’s agents allegedly engaged in a sustained effort to discourage union support, threatening employees with dismissal and loss of benefits, telling them a union vote would be futile, and asking employees to sign an anti-union petition. One employee was allegedly asked to take a cell phone picture of his ballot. Seven union supporters were fired. In the end, 18 employees cast ballots for the union and 21 voted against it. In response to charges filed by the union ((3-CA-27215) and after a thorough investigation, the region found that the alleged pre-election misconduct made a legitimate vote impossible, even if rerun. Accordingly, the Region is asking that the injunctive relief require that the Respondent bargain with the Union. The petition for injunctive relief was filed in U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York.”

** As a nurse-paralegal who has worked on employment  discrimination and retaliation complaints filed in The  Southern District of New York, I have also represented the Plaintiffs  (workers) in their attendant disability and unemployment claims.  One thing is always true in such cases:  time is on the side of the employer.  Companies  have the resources to sustain months and even years of hearings, decisions, appeals and trials.  Without community supports,  the same can never be said for  employees — even after, as in the Deb-El case,   hearings have resulted in findings favorable to those workers.

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Sullivan County’s unemployment rate rose to 10.3% in January 2010. Some workforce development  estimates have placed that  figure  nearer to  20% when it includes  unemployed and under-employed workers no longer eligible for unemployment benefits.   The overall rate in NY State is 9.4%.  Of  New York’s 62 counties, Sullivan’s unemployment rate is ranked amongst  the highest  at 43. Bronx County is ranked at the bottom  with a rate of  14.1%.

Historically, as too many unemployed workers compete for too few jobs,  wages have been driven downward and  working conditions have worsened. As wages have fallen,  so has the ability of workers to support local economies.  As Congress opined in establishing the National Labor Relations Act and Board,  collective bargaining is essential to ensuring against  ensuing economic depressions  — like our current one.

4 thoughts on “Sullivan County Business Challenges Workers’ Right to Organize

  1. lizbucar Post author

    The courage is indescribable. It rings of the 20’s and 30’s. What I neglected to include in the story was that I spoke with a representative of Deb-El who was at the Monday hearing. I told him I would print verbatim whatever response he had to the employees’ allegations but he refused to speak on the record.

  2. Daniel

    When will people WAKE UP. The last paragraph sums it up well, these brave workers are not just fighting for their rights but the direction of the local economy. These workers are only looking for a voice in their workplace and to be able to support their families and their communities. I do not think they should be subject to threats or abuse to achieve this basic right. I pray that they prevail and Sullivan County as a whole becomes a little bit better because of this.

  3. lizbucar Post author

    Thank you, Daniel for your comment. The struggle belongs to all of us and hopefully, when we realize we’re humans first, citizens second, workers third and way down the line, consumers will we understand that what happens to you happens to me. Thank you for both reading the article and taking the time to share your thought.

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