Davis Wire Strike
By Manny Frishberg
Men working 12-hour days without a break, even being forced to eat their lunches by their machines, workers having their hands mangled by the machines they operate, seven day weeks – a month or more without a day off.
These stories are a thing of the past, right? They seem like something out of the works of Charles Dickens or reported by Upton Sinclair and the early 20th century muckrakers. Or maybe they are the sort of horrific working conditions you might expect to hear about in Third World sweat shops making Nike running shoes or tee-shirts for the Gap. But they’re not. These stories are coming out of Kent, Washington, where workers at the Davis Wire Co. say they have been putting up with until they went out on strike four weeks ago.
“The company has taken our breaks away and works us for hours and hours without breaks,” says —– ——-. A union shop steward with 15 years in at Davis Wire. “We’ve had some major injuries – people losing fingers – and for some reason they think a safety program means you fire whoever gets hurt, so you get warning letters written up and actual terminations.
“From the very beginning, about a year ago, they brought in this new efficiency manager. He follows you around and watches he every machine. And he’s pushed us 12 hours a day, seven days a week, literally eight, 10, 12 weeks in a row, pushing production way up over the top in the middle of the wintertime, when we normally don’t run that production. We become a skeleton crew. We were all wondering what was going on. ”
Davis Wire has been around in one form or another since 1927. With six manufacturing plants, in California, Colorado, Michigan, Oklahoma, Texas and Washington state, they are, according to their own website, “one of the largest steel wire companies in the entire country.” Each year, Davis buys more than 300,000 tons of steel rod, turning more than 100,000 tons of it into industrial wire. They make nails, corral panels, barbed wire, sheep and goat fencing, chain link fence, wire mesh for stucco and plastering, among a long list of products for the home, farm and industrial uses. Chances are, if you go to Home Depot or Lowe’s to build a wire fence, you will end up with a Davis Wire product.
Only about one in 16 workers on America’s private industries currently even belong to a union, and the once vaunted power of even a huge nationwide union like the Teamsters has been diminished to the point that they have few choices remaining. Federal laws do protect the rights of workers for form and join unions, and for the unions to bargain for them on wages and working conditions. But nothing in the law says that the company has to agree to anything in these bargaining sessions. And that, according to Robert Bruner, is exactly what happened when Kent facility’s contract expired at the end of 2011.
“Well,” he says, “when we went in to the bargaining table, for the first three months they were there, they didn’t want to bargain. All they wanted to do was to argue and tell us they didn’t have orders, they were moving production to other mills, and they were probably going to have to lay people off – it just depends on how the bargaining turns out. … Then they come back with lists and numbers of people they were going to lay off – they were probably going to have to lay off because they didn’t have the orders.
Bruner says the union continued trying to reach an agreement, even going to a mediator, but to no avail. “They brought X amount to the table and said, ‘This is it. You need to agree to this.’ That’s what they called bargaining. We took it back to the teamsters it was, 51 to four, absolutely no way are we going to take it. And they came back and laid off 28 people in 24 hours.”
According to Bruner, the union gave back wages and benefits several years ago when the company faced real financial difficulties, expecting something in return when business improved. Yet their offer on wages effectively would leave them making $3-400 less in five years than they do now. Still, he says, this strike is not about wages, but unreasonable and illegal work rules that create a dangerous situation for the people on the line. “We have Unfair Labor Practices suits filed against them right now, over 25 charges in that lawsuit. And we’re not going back until they do right,” he said.
Strikes are usually the last resort for a union shop. Being on strike means not getting a paycheck, often for moths at a time, and companies are free to hire replacement workers, even replacing the strikers permanently. But the Taft-Hartley Act, a broad federal labor law from the 1930s, limits the union’s use of secondary boycotts – attempting to stop the company’s doing business with another person or company whose workers are on strike.
So the Teamsters cannot ask people to pressure the stores where Davis Wire products are being sold to stop selling their products until a fair agreement is reached. But that doesn’t mean the rest of us can’t have our say. Construction companies and other industrial users are mostly beyond the reach of the average consumer, but the home improvement stores are not. Both Home Depot and Lowe’s stock Davis Wire products, and both have consumer complaint lines: Home Depot’s is 1-800-466-3337. Lowe’s’ number is 1-800-445-6937. Call those companies and tell them that you don’t like what’s going on at Davis and you want avoid products manufactured by them.
You’ll be glad you did.