Workers at the Nebraska Service Center of the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service (USCIS) in Lincoln voted overwhelmingly for UE in Labor Board elections held in Lincoln on May 6 and 7.
Like the members of Local 208 in St. Albans, VT, Local 1008 in Laguna Niguel, CA, and Local 1118 in Chicago, these are contract workers who process forms for USCIS, a federal government agency. The current contractors in Lincoln are two companies, VETS and SERCO. Because there are two employers there were two separate National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) elections, held on consecutive days. The 270 contract workers at the center will form a single UE local. The vote for UE at VETS was 115-40. The vote at SERCO was 65-27.
UE International Representative Karen Hardin, who led the UE campaign, recalls how it started. “A couple of years ago we were out there and met with a small group of workers. We had kept in touch with them since then. Then we got an email to the UE national office from one of the workers we had met with, wanting us to meet with them again.”
Field Organizer Jason Whisler, based in Iowa, met with workers on March 23. International Representative Kim Lawson, who works with Local 208 at the USCIS service center in Vermont, spoke to the meeting via Skype, and Hardin went to Lincoln in early April. “It all happened very fast,” says Hardin. “We had good turnout at the first meeting and a commitment to work as an organizing committee, which was set up in most areas of the workplace. Jason had done the legwork before that meeting. So at the very next meeting we put out the petitions for people to sign to join the union.
The organizing committee began circulating the petitions on a Monday, and by Wednesday they had over 60 percent of the workers signed up. By the end of the week more than 75 percent had joined. “Very rarely does it happen like that, that everything clicks and falls in place,” says Hardin. The following week workers demanded that both companies recognize the union, and when they refused, the union filed election petitions with the NLRB, and managed to get two fairly quick elections.
VETS conducted one anti-union meeting and had its supervisors talk against the union, but only SERCO hired a professional union buster and ran a full-scale anti-union campaign. Because of the speed of the union campaign, the workers only had to endure three weeks of the company’s anti-union campaign.
“The committee stayed very focused,” says Hardin, “and anytime the company tried to get us on their campaign we got right back on our campaign. Our people kind of messed with the union buster, handing out popcorn at his meetings, doing some fun stuff like that. It distracted people from the crap that the buster was trying to pull. We had 32 people on the organizing committee and very good coverage of the whole workplace,” she adds. “We had young and old, male and female, and representation from the Vietnamese workers.”
‘I JUST ABOUT SCREAMED FOR JOY’
Marlys Sanders, a VETS worker on the organizing committee, said she’s learned a lot. “A good thing that came from the whole process, besides that we won, is that all of us felt that we got to know each other better as co-workers working toward a common cause. Many people from first shift said they never would have gotten to know people on second shift if this wouldn’t have happened. There was more of a camaraderie that we haven’t had before, so that was great. Also, I enjoyed seeing people in a different scenario than you do at work and seeing abilities that you didn’t know they had, such as leadership qualities. That just doesn’t happen at work because you’re not allowed to.”
Being well organized is what enabled SERCO workers to withstand the company’s union-busting attack, says Zachary Knipe, a member of the organizing committee. “We really coordinated it well, having coverage at most of the meetings with knowledgable people there to challenge them. You’ve got to expose them for who and what they really are.
Knipe added, “Things were just that bad that people saw, what other option do we have? We hadn’t had a raise in five years. No job security, no guarantee that discipline is going to be handed out evenly or fairly. There was just no other recourse, and ultimately I believe that is what carried us through. That, and the example set by the workers at the other USCIS service centers and what they have accomplished in UE. If not for that, I don’t know, it may very well have gone the other way.”
“I’ve worked there for seven years,” said Mary Anderson, a VETS employee. “With each contractor things have gotten worse and worse. My husband is a union official for the United Transportation Union and every time I’d come home and complain about the way things are at work, he’d say, ‘You guys need to organize.’ But I never really understood how I would go about the process. So when someone contacted me, I think it was the beginning of March, one of my friends at work texted me and said, ‘I don’t know how you feel about this. Would you be interested in helping organize?’ I just about screamed for joy, I said ‘Yes!’ So we went to our first meeting with Jason Whisler, and I was just completely hooked from the very beginning.”
Anderson adds, “We all jumped on board so quickly, because everyone was so unhappy at work, that we didn’t realize it at the time, but we did everything right. We had stuff going before management even knew what was happening.”
UE members at the other USCIS service centers helped not only by their example, but with direct communications. International Rep. Kim Lawson set up a Skype video call in April with UE leaders from Local 208 in Vermont, and organizing committee members in Nebraska. Christine Brown of Local 208 was one of the participants. “It was me and our Chief Steward Kelly Levick,” she said. “They asked us some general questions about how a contract works with the service center, and they liked the answers. They had lots of general questions for us and I think it was very helpful to them to know that we had been a member of the union since 2008 and that it makes it a more productive workplace.”
UE members from Locals 893 and 1187 met with the Lincoln workers in person. Adrienne McElderry is president of Sub-local 70 of Local 893 in Council Bluffs, IA and a UE Young Activist. “The weekend before they voted they had a pot luck meeting, and I and one other person from my local, Sarah Adams, drove over to Lincoln. I told them a little bit about my role in UE, in my local and with the Young Activists, and answered their questions. One person came up to me afterwards and said he had seen me before. Where could he have seen me before, I asked. He had seen me in one of the Young Activist videos on the UE website.”
UE members in Local 1008 at the USCIS service center in California also helped with statements that were included in leaflets. Both workplaces have significant contingents of Vietnamese, and speak-outs by Local 1008 Vietnamese members was distributed in Vietnamese. “I wrote some words to help them to understand why we organized with UE and ask them to join with us,” says Julia Thuy Nguyen of Local 1008.
UE Director of Organization Bob Kingsley spoke to workers at a parking-lot rally on May Day, just a few days before the voting. "This campaign is strong because you are strong and your issues are strong," Kingsley said. "There is no reason workers here should be paid 20 percent less than their counterparts in Vermont and California.” Kingsley urged voters to ignore the union buster's threats and lies and instead consider UE's "record of achievement" in Vermont and California, where the union wage advantage is $5,000 to $6,000 per year under UE labor agreements.
In the aftermath of the union victory, Kingsley said, "This was a tremendous triumph for the workers in Nebraska, a victory that provides them an immediate means to remedy their second-class treatment. It is also an important strategic win for UE as we broaden our campaign to lift standards for federal contract workers around the country."
Besides Karen Hardin and Jason Whisler, Field Organizer Leticia Marquez Prado worked on the campaign, and in addition to organizing support from Vermont, Kim Lawson also traveled to Nebraska to assist the campaign.