Over 700 members of UE Locals 208 in Vermont and 1008 in California ratified new five-year agreements in votes held between October 21 and 23 – agreements that would not have been possible without the strong activism and solidarity of workers at both USCIS locations.
“We came together, we stayed together, and we prevailed together. We won a fair contract, and it was our solidarity that made it possible. Out of this battle came a greater sense of camradery.” Local 208 Negotiating committee member Kelly Levick said, “Together we can and together we did!” Local 1008 President Joel Faypon, who headed up the workplace mobilization in Laguna Niguel, said, “The campaign brought out the best in a lot of the members from the local. We have become more militant. The members have realized how much power they have as a collective.”
The new union contract is with the members’ new employers – The Oryza Group (in Vermont) and FCi Federal (in California). UE Local 208 and 1008 members provide critical clerical support for the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service (USCIS) in facilities known as service centers. Every few years the contract for this work is put out to bid, and 208 and 1008 members get a new boss. Oryza and FCi took over in early August as the federal contactors operating the Vermont and California Service Centers.
With every change of employer at the service centers, a new union contract must be negotiated. These contracts are bargained according to the provisions of a federal law called the Service Contract Act (SCA). The SCA governs certain terms of employment for contract workers who provide services to the federal government. Under the SCA, contractors are reimbursed for the wages and for “health and welfare” benefits for employees so long as certain conditions are met. In order for workers to receive wage increases, bargaining has to be concluded by a certain date – in this case it was necessary to reach an agreement before October 31.
UE Locals 208 and 1008 began joint bargaining for mirror contracts in late August. The locals surveyed their members on bargaining priorities, and the responses were clear: The members wanted decent wage increases, stronger seniority language for job postings, and to protect and improve their benefits. Bargaining sessions alternated between the two locations, and members of the negotiating committees travelled back and forth across the country.
It became clear early on that the new companies were going to resist any real improvements and that a fair contract would only be possible if members mobilized on both coasts. After first proposing a four-year wage freeze, the employers increased their offer to a .75 percent (three-quarters of 1 percent) pay raise in each year of the contract. Members felt disrespected and unappreciated. It is, after all, the workers who remain year after year doing this critical work while the contractors come and go, but they go after amassing significant profits.
Over the course of bargaining from late August to late October, members at both locals demonstrated that they were prepared to do what it took to win a decent contract. Members held union T-shirt days and button days several times a week. Both locals used their Facebook pages extensively to inform members about the issues in negotiations, to organize support, to publicize activities and to share what members were doing in both locations, including photos and videos.
Members in California and Vermont signed a petition and presented it to management at the bargaining table and to the USCIS directors of both centers.
CALIFORNIA: TAKING IT TO THE STREET
For the September 14-15 bargaining session held at the California Service Center, Local 1008 mobilized workers to attend the negotiations as observers, as many as 25 at a time, during their breaks, lunch and after their shifts. Joel Faypon says the look on management negotiators faces when observers showed up was “priceless.”
During the third bargaining session in Vermont, September 21-23, the majority of Local 1008 workers wore red UE T-shirts and UE buttons. At the fourth session in California, September 28-29, the company proposed a four-year wage freeze in front of a roomful of member observers. The members got up and walked out of the room. This seemed to have an effect; the companies came back from a break and offered raises (although far too small.)
Local 1008 also held lively rallies on the street in front of the federal building where members work, and received media coverage. When the CEO of FCi sent out a memo to workers, the union organized members to write a reply on the memo, then collected them and mailed them back. They called this their “Return to Sender” drive, and Joel Faypon even posted a video about it on the Local’s Facebook page.
Local 1008, representing more than 300 USCIS contract workers in Laguna Niguel, reached out to Local 1200 of the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE), which represents more than 1,000 federal employees, including workers directly employed by USCIS, in the same building. Yosef Yacob, the AFGE local president, strongly backed the struggle of Local 1008 members and said they were “an inspiration” to the federal workers.
The local also reached out to public officials and got Congresswoman Loretta Sanchez and Bao Nguyen, the mayor of Garden Grove where many members live, to send letters to FCi supporting the union.
After a break from street rallies, the local resumed them on October 13 with bigger turnout than ever. Workers were preparing to strike if they needed to. Faypon says that one concerned supervisor asked him what the bosses should do if the workers walk out. He replied, “Nothing, just sit back and watch the show.”
MOBILIZING IN VERMONT
In Vermont, Local 208 also held a rally which was covered by local television and print media. Letters to the editor from UE members were published in the local newspaper, and the local received a letter of support from the AFGE local that represents federal employees at the facility. With Senator Bernie Sanders’s help, a letter to USCIS, jointly signed by Senator Sanders, Senator Patrick Leahy and Congressman Peter Welch, expressed the concern of Vermont’s congressional delegation with Oryza/FCi’s low wage proposals.
Local 208 members also held sign-making events and made small “picket” signs out of cardstock and Popsicle sticks. These signs were used to decorate work areas. Many of the signs said “10/16” the date the old contract expired along with its “no strike” provision.
As October 16 approached, the local leadership spent a lot of time speaking with members about the possible need to strike if no agreement was reached. Stewards and other leaders surveyed the members and held a social event to discuss this in detail. When management distributed letters designed to urge the membership to come to work on October 16, the local replicated Local 1008’s “Return to Sender” action. The chief stewards asked members to write responses on the letters management distributed, collected these letters and gave them back to the site manager.
The local also worked on turning out observers for the final day of negotiations scheduled on October 15 in St. Albans Vermont. On this day, over 80 members attended the negotiations. The bargaining had to be moved to a larger meeting space at the hotel where bargaining was taking place. Second shift workers came to bargaining before they started their shift. First shift workers arrived in droves after their shift ended, and second shift workers arrived again after their shift ended at 11:30 p.m. These observers held signs that said “10/16” that they raised whenever management entered the room after a caucus.
Locals 208 and 1008 also coordinated their activities with Local 808, the newly-organized USCIS workers at the Nebraska Service Center in Lincoln who are fighting for their first contract, and with Local1118 at the USCIS Field Office in Chicago.
The result of all of this activity, determination and solidarity was a tentative agreement reached in the early hours of October 16.
Tammy Levick, a member of the 208 negotiating committee said, “I am really proud of how our membership came together when it counted. Our members let the contractors know that we would settle for nothing less than a fair contract. Because of the solidarity shown, we were able to win a contract we can feel good about. This was my first time negotiating, and I learned so much. I found it stressful and exhausting but very rewarding in the end.”
The terms of the new agreement included stronger seniority language, wage increases and increases in health and welfare benefits.
Members of both locals had prioritized raising the wages for workers in the lowest paid classifications at their centers. The new contract raises these rates through a combination of wage and H&W increases by between 4.8 percent and 7 percent in the first year of the new agreement. In Vermont, this will result in the lowest paid classifications receiving the same amount of pay as most of the other workers as of December 1 of this year, and in California workers in the lowest paid classifications will receive higher increase in both the first and second year of the contract.
Wage increases for other employees range from 1.7 to 2.5 percent the first year and between 2.3 to 4.4 percent over the remaining years of the agreement.
Increases to health and welfare benefits accounts for part of the wage increases. Under the SCA, the Department of Labor sets a health and welfare (H&W) benefit amount that the employer receives from the federal government for every employee for every hour paid (excluding overtime). This H&W rate has historically increased each year. Currently the H&W rate is $4.02 an hour; this rate will rise for 208 and 1008 members on December 1, 2015 to $4.27 an hour. Contractors use this money to pay for benefits like health insurance, sick leave, life insurance and other benefits. Each employee has an account, and if there is money left over, the money is placed in a 401(k) or 401(a) account in the employee’s name. Historically, employees have not been able to receive this H&W money as wages.
Under the new contracts, members will receive higher H&W benefits than those set by the DOL and will have the option to take a portion of these benefits as wages. For example, in the first year of the agreement, 208 and 1008 members will receive an H&W benefit of $4.52 per hour (27 cents above the DOL set rate). Members can use this increase to pay for benefits, to increase their retirement fund contributions, or to receive up to 50 cents per hour in wages. The amount members receive in H&W benefits increases each year of the contract. By the final year, the rate received will be 52 cents above whatever rate the DOL has set for that year.
The locals bargained a five-year agreement which will run until after their services are put out to bid again. There are wage increases in all five years.
Other highlights of the agreement include the removal of all discipline as of October 16 from members’ personnel records, preservation of time-off benefits, a six- month cap on the use of temporary employees at any given time, and modifications to the attendance policies. Preserving time-off benefits was especially important as the contractors wanted to eliminate employees’ one paid personal day per year. Members kept this and all other paid time-off benefits.
The negotiating committee members consisted of Noemi Dickeroff, Julia Nguyen, Sharon Flannery, Laura Guzman and Tiffany Anderson from UE Local 1008. Claire Boutah, Kelly Levick, Tammy Levick, Gina Reed and Cortney Lefevbre made up the Local 208 committee. The committees were assisted by Kimberly Lawson, UE International Representative. Field Organizer Fernando Ramirez assisted Local 1008 with member mobilization.
Below: Local 208 members fill the bargaining room on Oct. 15, the final day of negotiations.