Corporate America Sends a Labor Day Message

rr donnelleyMentally and Physically Exhausting

Mark Harris recalls that in addition to good wages and benefits, Haddon provided the “little things that helped our morale,” including company-paid Christmas parties. However, Donnelley cancelled the Christmas party and all other socials. “If we wanted a Christmas party,” says Artley, “we had to set it up and pay for it ourselves.”

But, with a physically demanding 13/1 schedule, parties were rare. With few exceptions, hourly employees, most of whom stood most of their shifts, were required to work 13 straight days with one day off, beginning in the late 1990s. Many worked double shifts. “You don’t mind it if the business is dying, because you do what you have to in order to make it work,” says Zeisloft, “but this was a profitable company, and there was always work.”

During the past few years, Donnelley cut back on the 13/1 agreement, but would resort to new contract language that limited hourly workers to “only” 311 days a year. Families, especially the younger ones, became used to a good annual income. They did not get used to the reality that there was little family time or that there was significant physical and mental stress because of the work conditions. Even if there was a reduction of printing contracts, the company apparently had plans only to reduce forced overtime, not eliminate it. “We looked forward to June and October,” says Zeisloft, “because those were the slowest times during the year, and we could be with our families more.”

Blocking and Stalling

Management tended to “blame everything on the union,” says Harris, who had been at the plant 32 years. Under the union contract is a three-step grievance process. If a problem couldn’t be resolved at one of three levels it went to arbitration. Under Haddon, problems tended to be solved internally, says Mark Harris. But under Donnelley, there was “a lot of blocking and stalling,” with some grievances taking as long as three years before going to arbitration. In some cases, says Harris, the union couldn’t afford the cost of arbitration, especially when faced by a corporation that seemed to have endless legal resources and the desire to never admit it did anything wrong. Nevertheless, the union, says Zeisloft, “fought as hard for the non-union workers as it did for its own members.”

The corporation’s blatant anti-union attitude was clearly seen in 2007. The United Network International (UNI), a federation of more than 1,000 unions representing 20 million unionized workers on four continents, had sent three detailed letters to Thomas Quinlan to request a meeting to discuss workplace conditions in the corporation’s overseas plants. The alliance specifically wanted to talk with the CEO about following the recommendations of the International Labour Organisation and various national laws about the rights to join a union, bargain collectively, and issues of discrimination and child labor. Quinlan ignored the letters. In May 2008, a delegation from UNI and the Teamsters went to the Chicago headquarters to meet with Quinlan. They left a letter of concern with an assistant; Quinlan had refused to meet with them.

The corporate attitude to workers, reflected in numerous ways in Bloomsburg, extended even after the closing was announced. On Friday, September 2, the state sent a Rapid Response Team to Bloomsburg. The purpose was to give the workers information about numerous social services available, to discuss government benefits, including unemployment, and to help them find other work.

At a preliminary meeting, with four union officers and three from Management, the team outlined what it wanted to do and to secure the company’s assistance. According to those who were there, the Human Resources manager, who was also on the list to be terminated, asked how long the meeting with the workers would be. She was told it would be 90 minutes. “Can it be done after work hours,” she asked, “because we have production goals to be met.”

Alan Robinson, of the state’s Department of Labor and Industry, replied, “You’re not going to like this answer. You can pay now or you can pay late.” He was referring to the reality that the longer workers were unemployed the more RR Donnelley would be paying its share in unemployment taxes.

“We were all surprised at her question,” says Artley, but they were even more surprised by what she said later. Reaffirming a Management attitude, she suggested, “Can we send these [workers] back to the floor . . . because we have production goals to meet.” The planning meeting ended at that point. “We stood outside just shaking our heads in disbelief,” says Artley.

Rhetoric Is All that It Is

Kirk Artley is 56 years old. Like most of those who have been terminated, he’s not old enough to retire; in a nation that values youth, he’s not a prime candidate for employment, no matter what his competence and experience are. But, he’s more worried about his co-workers. “They have mortgages, they have bills like everyone else,” he says, “and now they’re out a job in an area that has few new jobs.” More important, most of those terminated are not only skilled labor, but have a long history in a highly technical field. Their knowledge and abilities will be lost if they are forced into other employment.

In the RR Donnelley Corporate Social Responsibility Report are four guiding principles. One is “Treating others the way that we want to be treated.” It’s nice rhetoric. If it were true.

Bloomsburg plant management referred all calls to the Chicago headquarters. Three calls in a week to the Chicago headquarters for comment were not acknowledged or returned. Most workers at the Bloomsburg plant who voluntarily talked about the problems and issues asked that their names be concealed. Many refused to talk until after October 24, the final date of their employment. One worker said, “You never know what they could do to us even in our last month there.”

walter m. braschAnother said his reason for not saying anything was, “They could fire me and deny me the severance benefits,” even though he and the company had signed a severance agreement. That fear of retaliation, whether real or perceived, was seldom seen under the management of Haddon Craftsmen.

Walter Brasch

Walter Brasch, a retired professor of mass communications, is a syndicated social issues columnist, and a member of The Newspaper Guild/Communications Workers of America, Authors Guild, and National Society of Newspaper Columnists. His latest book is Before the First Snow: Stories from the Revolution, available through bookstores, Amazon.com, or the publisher’s website, www.greeleyandstone.com.

Published by the LA Progressive on September 4, 2011
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About Walter M. Brasch

Walter M. Brasch, Ph.D., is an award-winning journalist and author. He is a former multimedia writer-producer, newspaper and magazine reporter and editor, and is professor emeritus of mass communications from the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education. His latest book is Fracking Pennsylvania, which looks at the health, environmental, geological, and economic impact of natural gas horizontal fracturing. He also investigates political collusion between the natural gas industry and politicians. Among his 18 books--most of which integrate history, politics, and contemporary social issues--are The Press and the State, Before the First Snow: Stories from the Revolution, Sinking the Ship of State: The Presidency of George W. Bush, The Joy of Sax: A Look at the Bill Clinton Administration, and Social Foundations of the Mass Media.
He is also the author of dozens of magazine articles, several multimedia productions, and has worked in the film industry and as a copy writer and political consultant. He is the author 16 books, most of them focusing upon the fusion of historical and contemporary social issues, including America's Unpatriotic Acts: The Federal Government's Violation of Constitutional and Civil Rights (2005); Sinking the Ship of State: The Presidency of Geroge W. Bush (2008), Black English and the Mass Media (1981); Forerunners of Revolution: Muckrakers and the American Social Conscience (1991); With Just Cause: The Unionization of the American Journalist (1991); Brer Rabbit, Uncle Remus, and the 'Cornfield Journalist': The Tale of Joel Chandler Harris (2000); The Joy of Sax: America During the Bill Clinton Era (2001); and Sex and the Single Beer Can (3rd ed., 2009). He also is co-author of Social Foundations of the Mass Media (2001) and The Press and the State (1986), awarded Outstanding Academic Book distinction by Choice magazine, published by the American Library Association.